In a recent piece in Fortune magazine, writer Anne Fisher notes:
“Intent on cutting costs, many employers are trying to get rid of people over 50, despite rising age-discrimination litigation…They’ll probably regret it before long, since demographics suggest that business is facing a dangerous brain drain from voluntary retirements alone. And those folks’ lost smarts can cost an awful lot to replicate."
- - Fortune, 7 March 2005
Ms. Fisher gives an astonishing illustration (which you and I will pay for) of the costliness:
“Consider the chilling example of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Way back in the 1960s it spent $24 billion (in 1969 dollars) - and at one point employed 400,000 people - to send 12 astronauts to the moon.
“But in the 23 years since the Apollo program ended, the engineers who carried crucial know-how in their heads, without ever passing it on to colleagues, have retired or died (or both). At the same time, important blueprints were catalogued incorrectly or not at all, and the people who drew them are no longer around to draw them again.
“So to fulfill the Bush administration's promise to return to the moon in the next decade, NASA is essentially starting all over again. Estimated cost to taxpayers in current dollars: $100 billion.”
Anticipating a massive departure of older workers in the next half decade or so and fearing that younger managers won’t have the chops to take over, a few large corporations, according to Ms. Fisher, have implemented a variety of programs to capture the knowledge of their older employees before they leave. Among them:
- Mentoring – of limited value because it transfers only one person’s knowledge
- Communities of Practice – company-wide groups of varying ages that meet regularly
- Action Learning Teams – cross-discipline groups where young managers are exposed to big projects and issues
All well and good, but as Ms. Fisher points out, the best way to pass on knowledge is to stop laying off older workers before their time.
Nevertheless, there is a hole in this otherwise excellent story. It ignores the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of older workers laid off in the past five years or more who are still healthy, still smart, still knowledgeable and desperately looking for work in their fields of expertise.
Not all knowledge is corporation-specific. Engineers know how to engineer, lawyers how to lawyer and even website builders like me still know how to do that better than kids just out of college. And one of the best things about getting older is the desire to pass on what we have learned in our long careers. I know from personal experience the pleasure of watching younger colleagues improve their skills and start to fly on their own. The satisfaction is enormous, and we’re dying out here (almost literally) wanting to be productive.
That we are not is attributable only to ageism and its illegal subsidiary, age discrimination. Okay, we’re not as pretty or handsome as the younger folks, but corporate America had better get over it. There are a lot of us and they are going to need us - soon.
Bob Corcoran, GE’s chief learning officer who is quoted in the Fortune story, has seen the future of business and knows it works:
“He envisions a future, not far away, in which ‘people aged 65 to 80 will share a job with someone else or work core hours, ten to three, or work part-time and take extended leaves to share their expertise with nonprofits.’ He says GE has offered those options to employees in mid-career for more than a decade now, and "these people have produced great results for us.”
Thank you to Kyrielle for alerting me to this Fortune story.