Truth and Lies about Hiring Older Workers

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Elderly man's face over white background As a result of people living longer and needing/choosing to work much further into retirement, the workforce is getting older. And, as the workforce and job candidate market gets older, it is creating a lot of age related issues in the recruitment process and in the workplace, which companies are not proving particularly well-equipped to deal with. For example, research from Peter Cappelli at Wharton Business School reveals  that 36.5 percent of 50-year-olds face age discrimination in the workplace, and it seems to be more common than race or gender discrimination. They also found that 25 percent of employers surveyed say their company is not keen to hire older workers, and alarmingly in the IT sector they found that the majority of IT employers said they wouldn’t hire anyone over 40.

Clearly, the situation of a rapidly aging workforce and rapidly escalating age discrimination cannot go on forever; it’s not only folly but unsustainable. So, I thought now would be a good time to face this issue head on by examining some of the major myths/barriers that are preventing older people from getting hired and exposing these myths by presenting the more positive truth/reality of the situation and hopefully opening the door for some more older workers to take up their rightful places in the workplace.

1. Older workers are more expensive.This is a myth.

Just recently an Adeccosurvey found that 51 percent of hiring managers surveyed believed that mature workers had high salary compensation demands. Yes, there is a prevailing notion in the market that older workers are more expensive. However, the Wharton research refutes this. They admit that the use of healthcare benefits is greater in older workers, but if you double the percentage of 55-year-old workers, it raises a firm’s total compensation costs by just 1 percent. So, in truth, there is only a negligible difference in cost between younger and older workers — and this 1 percent cost may easily be offset by the value adding experience brought by older workers.

2. Older workers tend to take more sick days. This is a myth.

While the Wharton research above suggests that older workers make more use of healthcare, they don’t necessarily take more sick days. In fact, quite the opposite, as research from Andrus Gerontology  shows that workers over 45 have a lower rate of sick time than workers between the ages of 17 and 44. So, no older workers do not take more sick time. As a related side point, r esearch shows that just 6 percent of older workers took time off in the last 12 months to deal with financial issues, compared to 15 percent for Gen Y and 10 percent for Gen X.

3. Older workers cannot take directions from younger managers. Not true. It’s more complicated than that.

Both the Adecco and Wharton researched revealed serious concerns in hiring managers that older workers cannot take directions from younger managers. However, the Wharton research implies that younger workers may lack the necessary tools and desire to manage and motivate more experienced workers. Yes, the management tools that work well for other young workers may not be so effective for older workers.

Therefore, companies should be recruiting and developing younger and older managers with more flexible management styles, which they can adapt to suit the situation and type of subordinate. This will mean that younger managers will be able to more effectively manage a more diverse workforce, including older workers, different personalities, etc. It is not the younger-older worker age dynamic that is the issue, it is the lack of a flexible management style, which is the issue that needs to be addressed.

4. Older workers can’t use new technologies. No, some can, so check and find out and don’t assume.

This is a widely held belief and 39 percent of those surveyed by Adecco said a reason for not hiring older workers was their difficulty in adapting to new technology. It’s true that millennials and Gen X have grown up with computers and new technologies, and so may be more familiar with technologies than Baby Boomers as a mass group. But, this must be considered on a case-by-case basis, because within all generations you will find people who are ‘technology able’ and ‘technology shy.’ So, don’t just assume that older workers can’t use technology, but check and assess for it, as you should with any worker.

5. Older workers are slow and less productive. Not true, according to several studies.

Research from  shows that older workers waste less time during the day than younger workers, while the GlobalEngagementReport2011 shows that engagement levels are higher in Gen X and Baby Boomers. Higher engagement generally leads to higher performance. We also mentioned earlier that older workers take less sick days than younger workers. So, in many ways older workers are more productive than younger workers.

As I said earlier, the situation of a rapidly aging workforce and rapidly escalating age discrimination cannot go on forever as it’s completely unsustainable. But, the first step to changing the situation is exposing some of the myths and prejudices about older workers as I have done in this article for exactly what they are, that is, myths and prejudices. Hopefully, employers can focus on the truth and positive features of older workers, which can help to engender more positive recruitment conditions for the older worker.

By Kazim Ladimeji