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The Aging Workforce

category_bug_ageism.gif Following up on Tuesday’s post which included the ageist Economist cover image, Deejay of Small Beer and John Franklin, forwarded me the two related stories from the magazine.

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.


AMEN! I work long hours on my feet; do proposals, plan consultations, wedding flowers, deliveries and pick-ups just as well as I did in my 40's.

Same thing in education. Principals can be 90 years old, nobody minds. But teachers are pressured to retire once they hit 50. Why?

"We need new blood."

If it's ok for professors to be 70 plus, why not teachers?

Funny thing. A 60 year old principal was a teacher yesterday, but as soon as his/her butt hits the big chair, he/she starts looking to fill the school with young (young and vulnerable to abuse)educators.

School boards should be keeping some veteran teachers (those who love the job)on board, period.

Schools should be staffed in 3 parts. New teachers, middle teachers (5-10 years exp. and vets.)

New teachers (stats. say) quit within 3-5 yrs.

I'll admit that I may not be as 'sharp' in thinking as I used to be, but I can see the big picture a mile away and save people a lot of time and money!

Tabor - I'm interested in how you think you're not as sharp as you once were...

I think that older people are becoming even more important as the population dynamic changes.

You certainly were correct when you said the effects of aging on cognitive skills are highly individual.

I, too, have wondered how we can have so many older executives meriting(?) such high salaries, managing huge world wide corporations, while many of their contemporaries are arbitrarily judged to no longer be employable, or are relegated to lesser positions deserving of even lower pay.

I am disappointed The Economist's article wasn't informed by more current scientific brain research in their pronouncements about aging workers abilities and skills. Wonder what's happening to the publication's circulation? Maybe they could benefit from some fresh older writing blood. There must be individuals such as yourself, Ronni, from whose services they could benefit.

Find myself wondering just what kind of work they project will need to be done, that so many aging individuals won't be able to perform?

I must admit to feeling somewhat perplexed about how to bring to the business communities attention
what they, presumably, already know about their employment needs in the future. What does it take for them to realize that at the very least, a partial solution is right under their noses with the aging experienced worker?

Is anybody from the WH Conference on Aging following up in a meaningful way, or was that just a waste of time for all participants? They, presumably, identified the aging worker as a potent force toward solving future employment needs.

The only good news for me is that long term care is so desperate in CA, I'll be able to command top dollar to just sit at a desk and be the token RN on duty.

My corporation, during the past 3 years, has become so strict with the pre-employment physicals that I cannot hire any nurse with a previous back injury (me), high blood pressure (me), or with any restrictions on lifting (me). I am down 5 full time licensed nurses and have only been able to hire 1 nurse out of the last 4 applicants because of physical limitations. The 3 rejects were all over 45.

The very worst part of this is that I lack the mature, experienced nurses to teach my young pups the ropes.

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