In the United States, the number of workers between the ages of 55 and 64 will increase by more than 50 percent in this decade while the number of 35 to 44 year olds will decrease by ten percent. Nevertheless, few companies are prepared:
“A survey in America last month by Ernst & Young found that ‘although corporate America foresees a significant workforce shortage as boomers retire, it is not dealing with the issue.’ Almost three-quarters of the 1,400 global companies questioned by Deloitte last year said they expected a shortage of salaried staff over the next three or five years. Yet few of them are looking to older workers to fill that shortage…”
- - The Economist, 18 February 2006
Some experts predict that a portion of the shortfall of workers in the U.S. and Europe can be handled by offshoring jobs to countries with lower salaries and relaxing immigration laws, but older workers are a closer solution. In arguing for this, The Economist did not take into account latest brain research, repeating the old myths:
“Their productivity may decline as they get older - although people gain in experience, their capacity for sharp thinking falls off…”
On the contrary, as the most recent studies, reported here, show:
“The most important difference between older brains and younger brains is also the easiest to overlook: older brains have learned more than younger ones. Throughout life, our brains encode thoughts and memories by forming new connections among neurons. The neurons themselves may lose some processing speed with age, but they become ever more richly intertwined.”
- - Newsweek, 16 January 2006
“Far from slowly powering down, the brain as it ages begins bringing new cognitive systems on line and cross-indexing existing ones in ways it never did before….you manage information and parse meanings that were entirely beyond you when you were younger.”
- - Time, 16 January 2006
That is not to say that some old people’s cognitive skills don’t slow down. Unlike childhood and adolescence, during which development can be predicted by the month, elders age at dramatically different rates. Some 90-year-olds are as sharp as they ever were; and some 60-year-olds have lost some thinking skills. It’s much more individual than in youth.
The Economist also repeats the common admonition to elders that if they want to work, they’ll need to take lower salaries.
“In many cultures, age is related to seniority, and therefore pay. The older the worker, the more expensive he is. Boomers will find work only if they accept that their wages will be based on what they are worth to the company - rather than their salary at the top of their career.”
Why is there an assumption that a 65-year-old is not as good, even better, than he or she ever was? That is not to say that if older workers take new jobs at which there is a ramp-up period, they should necessarily be paid what they were in previous jobs or, if they work fewer than 40 hours a week, they shouldn’t be paid less, but the assumption that because they are old, they are not worth the same salary they were ten or 15 years earlier is plain ageist.
No one ever suggests that a 35- or 45-year-old should be paid less money on a new job. I’ll take the age argument a lot more seriously when corporate CEOs who are frequently in the seventies and even eighties, stop taking home obscene salaries in multiples of tens of millions.
Aside from the objectionable cover of this issue, and the kneejerk ageism references to cognitive ability and salaries, The Economist covered the topic well, noting that age discrimination and diversity laws often make it difficult for companies to hire older workers.
It would behoove business and government to work together to make it easier to employ older people who want to continue working. That way elders, in addition to bringing decades of experience and judgment to the workforce, continue to contribute by paying taxes, helping to lower the fiscal strain on retirement resources and help themselves remain physically and mentally active.