The silver-collar economy
More companies are hiring people 65 and older because they believe they are reliable and productive, while the seniors themselves need – and want – to work. But is the trend squeezing out young people?
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The demand for older workers is global. If anything, the pressure on employers to welcome elderly workers appears greater in Japan and much of Europe than it is in the US. The reason is that, while the US has some population growth contributing to its labor force, those other advanced nations are plateauing or facing outright demographic decline because of low immigration and fertility rates. That translates into fewer working-age people to support each prospective retiree.Skip to next paragraph
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For now, Europe has a culture and policy climate that encourages retirement and discourages working past 65. But that appears to be changing. "We've seen a lot of countries in Europe, particularly Germany, starting to address these problems by raising the retirement age," says Richard Johnson, an expert on aging and retirement at the Urban Institute in Washington.
The Australian government, seeing what it perceived as a mismatch between older workers' value and employer demand, recently launched a program offering $1,000 bonuses for each worker over 50 that employers hire.
Amid pizza shops and hair salons near the town square of Needham, the entrance to the Vita Needle Company is almost invisible. It's a bit like the entrance to the railway Platform 9-3/4 in the fictional realm of Harry Potter. You'll probably see this door only if you're looking for it.
Yet there it is. Up a staircase, the little factory occupies a wooden-planked space that was once a dance hall. Where "factory" conjures up images of forklifts, assembly lines, or robotic machines, this is different: a modest-sized shop floor where people sit at workbenches, exchanging bits of casual conversation as they use hand-operated tools such as stamping machines, drills, and wire brushes.
Employees include former salesmen, postal workers, or waitresses (as Finnegan was) among them. Up the stairs come 10-foot-long boxes filled with thin steel tubing. Down the stairs go customized needles for industrial and medical uses.
"We make some of the finest needles in the world here," says Mr. Hartman, whose family founded the firm here in 1932.
For Vita Needle, the appeal of older workers is that they combine reliability with low maintenance and low costs. The older employees don't need a lot of supervision. They just come in and get the job done, sometimes setting their own schedule, like a 5 a.m. arrival.
Most of the shop-floor employees are part-time workers, not covered by the company's health-care benefits. That makes the senior demographic a good fit. (The older employees are eligible for Medicare, so they have health insurance even as the firm reduces a fast-rising cost of business.)
The needle factory blends collegiality with an industrious ethic on the part of workers. Workers like the social contact as much as anything, conversing as they pull lunch containers out of a fridge in the middle of the one-room workspace.
Finnegan says she might feel out of place if a workplace was dominated by young employees. The company's upward tilt in age is part of the banter.
"I don't want to fall," Finnegan says as she navigates an aisle. "There's too many old people around that would have to pick me up!"
Vita Needle's age profile isn't something that could be replicated everywhere. Some firms feature tasks that are too physically demanding for older workers. But the basic rationale for hiring senior workers – high quality work at relatively low cost – spans many industries.
Often older workers accept lower pay in return for jobs that are less demanding. (The needle plant emphasizes precision and quality control, but most of the jobs aren't highly skilled.)
Employers have also come to appreciate older workers for their dedication and performance. Sure, there are negative perceptions, too. Jackie James, director of research at Boston College's Sloan Center on Aging & Work, says some employers view older workers as less flexible and less interested in learning new skills. But her group's surveys find that people with silver hair and empty nests win over employers in prominent ways.