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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"Older workers are perceived as being reliable and having a very good work ethic, [and] more engaged in the work than the younger workers are," says Ms. James.Skip to next paragraph
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Mature workers often provide firms with a ready answer for particular needs, such as mentoring or taking on short-term projects. "Smart employers are targeting the mature workforce," says Melanie Holmes, a vice president at the staffing firm ManpowerGroup in Milwaukee. They offer the experience that today's productivity-focused companies are eager to have, she explains.
At the same time, Ms. Holmes says age discrimination against mature workers also lingers. In some cases, she notes, companies believe they waste money when they invest in training an older person, even though evidence suggests that young hires won't necessarily stay on the job any longer.
Perceptions remain complex, with some observers seeing exploitation where others see bosses like Vita Needle's Hartman as promoters of a healthier society.
Hartman has reaped benefits from his workers but also has tailored his operations with their interests and employability in mind. In a new book centered on Vita Needle, Caitrin Lynch, a sociologist at Olin College in Needham, describes it this way: Sometimes the workers may quip, and partly grouse, that they are "making money for Fred." At the same time, "it is due to Fred's business acumen, but also to his good will and social conscience, that they have jobs in the first place."
Howard Ring is one who's glad to work at the needle plant. "When you get to be older, it's very hard to get a job," notes Mr. Ring, now 77, who says he works to cover his expenses.
After a career in mechanical engineering ended with a layoff more than a decade ago, he says it was a "stroke of luck" that landed him his current job. He happened to visit Vita Needle's shop one day, saw a milling machine like one that he had at home, and asked if they were looking to hire anyone.
That was about six years ago. "I don't see any imminent retirement in my future at all," he says.
The rise of senior workers is part of a larger story of economic transformation. The advancement of human civilization has been enabled by various revolutions: in agriculture, metallurgy (think Bronze Age), and industrialization, to name a few.
Now, even as technology remains a driver of economic change, ManpowerGroup CEO Jeff Joerres argues that the world is in the "human age." It is one in which victory goes to organizations that best manage talent.
Companies basically want to attract the best workers (whatever their age), help them maximize productivity, and keep them happy. Efforts to tap the skills and dedication of well-seasoned workers are part of the process.
At Scripps Health in San Diego, this means offering a phased retirement program that allows employees 55 and older to gradually work less but remain on the payroll, and maintain their benefits, for as long as they want to and are able.
"We want them here," says Vic Buzachero, senior vice president of human resources for Scripps. "The more senior worker has a well-rounded knowledge base in terms of how to care for patients."
In one recent survey, the Society for Human Resource Management polled professionals in the field and found some 72 percent saying the loss of talent due to older workers retiring or departing is a current or potential problem.
So far, though, the response by employers has been mixed, with many not making older workers much of a priority, even as others cater to them in creative ways.
Some companies have made cubicles easier for mature workers to navigate, with enhanced lighting or larger keys for typing. AARP credited one of its "Best Employer" winners, First Horizon bank in Tennessee, with offering older workers something as simple as parking spaces close to the building.