Baby boomers shape future business

May 1, 2003

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I’m as old as the man in the mirror I shave every day. To keep from getting too lugubrious about this I laugh at Satchel Paige’s words: “How old would you be, if you didn’t know how old you was?” We get pretty philosophical when we think about our age and mortality but we don’t have a vote in getting older or approaching the other side of the grass. We can look for words of wisdom and comfort from some very sagacious people. Satchel Paige had a couple: “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter”, and “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Yogi Berra: “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” Senator John McCain: “Keep moving if you love life, and keep your troubles behind you.” Robert Browning: “What’s a man’s age? He must hurry more, that’s all; cram in a day what his youth took a year to hold”, and, “Come grow old with me, the best is yet to be! The last of life for which the first was made.”There are 76 million baby boomers in America! If you were born between 1946 and 1964, you’re one of them. Baby boomers grew up during the battles for civil rights. Today some of them are coming face to face with age discrimination in the workplace. Trish Nicholson reports in the March 2003 issue of the AARP Bulletin: “Fueled by charges from workers in their 40s and 50s, the number of age bias complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) jumped from 14,141 in 1999 to 19, 921 in 2002, up 41 percent”. Cari Dominguez, the EEOC Chairwoman and a former executive search professional with Heidrick and Struggles and Spencer Stuart, believes that age discrimination is still active in corporate America.The day after his 64th birthday, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan opened the UN Assembly on Aging by quoting lyrics from a Beatles’ song: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64?” Globally, the population of people over 60 is growing by 2 percent each year and by the year 2050 seniors are expected to outnumber children for the first time in human history.People in our business are always looking for new market needs. They want to stay ahead of the curve and are very interested in employment trends. Aging workers are going to be very much in demand in the years ahead. Before making the case for paying attention to older workers, let’s review The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). The ADEA prohibits employment discrimination against persons 40 years of age or older.

“It shall be unlawful for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of such individual’s age.It shall be unlawful for an employer to limit, segregate, or classify in any way, which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual or employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee because of such individual’s age.It shall be unlawful for an employment agency to fail or refuse to refer for employment, or otherwise to discriminate against, any individual because of such individual’s age, or to classify or refer for employment any individual on the basis of such individual’s age.”

The AARP Policy Book is very strong and clear on this. “To work free of age discrimination is a fundamental right. However, despite ADEA, age-based employment discrimination remains prevalent. Age discrimination can be blatant or subtle and can include such practices as refusing to hire or promote older workers, encouraging their retirement, targeting them in reductions in force, curtailing their employee benefits or limiting their training opportunities, job responsibilities and duties … Once unemployed, older workers face sharply limited employment opportunities; reemployment after job loss declines dramatically at older ages. Of the nearly 1 million workers age 55 and older that were displaced from their jobs between 1997 and 1999, only 53 percent were reemployed by February 2000. Some of these workers become “discouraged workers”, who give up the job search when it appears futile.”William D. Novelli, Executive Director and CEO of AARP, proclaims that baby boomers are going to have an impact on the future of business and employment in the U.S. In a recent speech he talks about the mystique of aging in America. “Fifty is somehow the demarcation point signifying the beginning of old age – and it’s deeply ingrained in our society. It’s even evident in our language. Think about it. We become 21 as a glorious rite of passage. We hit 50 like a brick wall. Then, we turn 65 like it’s the expiration date on a carton of milk gone bad. But, this imagery is changing fast, because the baby boomers don’t buy into the myth. And, it’s changing because it simply isn’t true, if it ever was.” He offers some thought provoking statistics:

  • A baby boomer turns 50 every 7.5 seconds.
  • By 2005, half of all people between the ages of 50 and 74 will be boomers.
  • The size of the 50+ population will more than double over the next 35 years.
  • This is changing the fundamental age distribution in our population. In 1900, only 13 percent of the population was age 50 or over. In 2000, it was over 27 percent. And, by 2020, it will be over 35 percent.

In his book, The New Paradigm of Business: Emerging Strategies for Leadership and Organizational Change, author Robert Harris writes, “The most visible differences between the corporation of the future and its present-day counterpart will not be the products they make or the equipment they use – but who will be working, how they will be working, why they will be working, and what work will mean to them.” Novelli sees four trends that will affect the workforce, employers, employees, candidates and recruiting firms.”Trend 1: Just as America is aging, so is the workplace. In this decade, the highest growth rate in the U.S. workforce will be among workers aged 55-64. In 2000, 13 percent of the workforce was 55 and older. By 2010, this figure will rise to 17 percent, or 26.6 million workers. By 2015, nearly one in five workers will be 55 or older. During that time, the number of younger workers, those aged 25-44, will actually decrease. All the while, critical shortages of qualified workers are expected, especially for service jobs.” So recruiters who want to be players in the employment marketplace of the future must consider older workers on their experience and qualifications only.”Trend 2: Boomers see retirement as a transition; not a termination. That signifies a dramatic shift from what we think of as “retirement.” AARP’s research shows that:8 in 10 baby boomers plan to work at least part-time

  • 5% anticipate working full-time at a new job or career
  • Only 16% say they will not work at all
  • 35% will work mainly for interest and enjoyment
  • 23% will work mainly for the income
  • 17% envision starting their own business.”

Will there be jobs for the baby boomers in the years to come? Will the forecasted labor shortage do away with age discrimination in the workplace? Will companies and recruiting firms put aside their stereotypes of older workers? We shall see.”Trend 3: A change of corporate leadership is affecting the workplace, and the workplace is affecting corporate leadership. The workplace is changing to meet alternative work styles and schedules. Businesses are run by men and women who increasingly understand the lifestyles dictated by the modern economy.” Look at all the changes in the workplace in the past ten years: both spouses working, company daycares, working at home two days a week, flexible work schedules, virtual offices, “flex time”, job sharing, four day/ten hour day work weeks these changes are miniscule compared to future changes. Companies and recruiting firms who do “business as usual” will be dinosaurs.”Trend 4: A new image of aging is arriving to erase the negative stereotypes of older workers and to increase their value to employers. Traits exhibited by midlife and older workers take on renewed value in the modern economy – traits such as experience, loyalty, attention to task, perseverance, work habits, and emotional maturity.” It will be great to see the dismantling of the myths and stereotypes that abound today about older workers: “they are not technically savvy, they have low energy level, their need their nap after lunch, younger people do not like to work with them, etc.” Maybe we can stretch a couple of Satchel Paige sayings to fit this situation: “I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in a while I would toss one that ain’t never been seen by this generation,” and “Just take the ball and throw it where you want to. Throw strikes. Home plate don’t move.”AARP’s William Novelli completed his speech with two facts and with a statement of surprise. “Companies are not there yet. They do not yet recognize the attributes and the value that older workers bring to the workforce. We have been surveying the attitudes, perceptions, and policies affecting older employees in the American workplace since 1985. Our most recent survey, American Business and Older Employees, conducted last year found that:

  • The majority of American businesses are not yet preparing for an older workforce.
  • Older workers are still generally viewed by American businesses as lacking the ability to learn and to understand new technologies, and as not being flexible enough when asked to perform different tasks.”

Mr. Novelli expressed surprise at these findings because “older employees – those age 50 and above – were seen to possess all but one of the top seven qualities that companies consider most desirable in any employee. The one quality they fell short on was willing to be flexible about doing different tasks (but they maxed the other six). Older workers are regarded as:

  • Committed to doing quality work;
  • Getting along well with others;
  • Having solid performance records;
  • Possessing basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic;
  • Being someone you can count on in a crisis; and
  • Being loyal and dedicated to the company.

I like to think that most people in our industry and in human resources value the dignity of work. I know that people who have lost their jobs through layoffs, restructuring, downsizing or whatever value the dignity and therapy of work. Older workers are the hidden resource for the future. Maybe some day soon corporate America will get it. Do you remember the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem we had to memorize in grammar school? The Village Blacksmith?

His brow is wet with honest sweatHe earns whatever he can,And looks the whole world in the face,For he owes not any man.Toiling, rejoicing, sorrowing,Onward through life he goes;Each morning sees some task begin,Each evening sees it close;Something attempted, something done,Has earned a night’s repose.

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