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'Age friendly' workplaces on the rise

Most baby boomers say they plan to stay in the workforce longer, and employment experts emphasize a need to create an enviroment free from age bias.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 2007



As Gary Burger was job-hunting several years ago after a 25-year career in accounting, he faced a challenge all too familiar to applicants like himself who are in their 50s and over.

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"You start hearing things like, 'You're overqualified,' or 'You may need to reduce your expectations,' " he says, recalling conversations with potential employers.

To bridge the gap until he found a permanent position, Mr. Burger accepted an offer from Callaway Partners, a consulting firm in Atlanta, to work on a project for six weeks. During that time, as he observed the company's positive attitude toward older workers, Burger liked the atmosphere. He decided to stay, turning down other opportunities. Three years later, he is a project manager.

"That's what made Callaway so interesting," he says. "They were looking at me because I have this broad range of experience."

That approach puts companies like this in the vanguard of a new era in the workplace. With an estimated 70 percent of baby boomers saying they want or need to stay in the workforce longer, employment experts are emphasizing the need to create an "age friendly" workplace, free from age bias and welcoming to mature workers. Even if many baby boomers ultimately retire earlier than they currently plan to, enough will stay on – or reenter – to swell the ranks of graying workers.

Already, 10,000 baby boomers are turning 50 every day, a trend the US Census Bureau says will continue for the next decade. As the age for collecting full Social Security benefits climbs to 67, and as some pensions become less secure, more people will need to keep working. But many employers are still eager to see them leave in their 50s.

Marc Freedman, author of "Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life," to be published in June, sees a fundamental societal shift under way, taking form in the emergence of a new life stage and a new stage of work.

"We're right in the middle of an enormous transformation from an ethic that was focused on leisure to one that is focused on work," he says. "The old dream was the freedom from work – the liberation from labor. The new dream is freedom to work, on new terms."

Yet some workplace specialists see a contradiction in hiring trends.

"There definitely is a talent crunch going on, and companies are struggling to find people with the right skills," says Melanie Holmes, a vice president of Manpower Inc. "But a huge population is being ignored when it comes to a recruiting strategy." Only 18 percent of companies responding to a Manpower survey have a strategy for recruiting older workers. The need for deliberate efforts is evident to Burger. Noting that he has observed many people's careers at this stage, he says, "They really start feeling the pressure to be pushed aside to let younger people rise within the corporation. With our youth-oriented society, lots of times we focus on a person's activity level rather than their thought process, which you tend to get with the more mature employee."

At Callaway Partners, cofounder Tony Rich cites the benefits of hiring those over 50. In addition to their broad experience, he says, "The work ethic they bring is just incredible. They come from a generation that grew up working hard and doing whatever it takes."

A chance to rejuvenate career

Employees benefit, too, Mr. Rich says. "The types of assignments we offer allow them to rejuvenate their careers. There exist a lot of new learning opportunities for these folks."

What makes businesses age-friendly?

"Employers make sure that in their hiring practices they treat people who are beyond 50 as they would treat anybody," says Patrick Rafter of RetirementJobs.com. They offer part-time, seasonal, and contract jobs, and they allow healthcare benefits for part-time employees.

In addition, they realize that some people "want to do something different with the company, and want new challenges," says William Byham, author of "70: The New 50."

Employers also need to understand how older and younger workers "can support each other and come together for mutual benefit," says Mr. Freedman. "And they need to understand that older people may be extremely innovative."

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