The Case for Recycling Older Workers 

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Jan 27, 2022

Suddenly the age-old phrase “recruitment and retention” is dripping off the lips of pundits of every stripe, trying to understand the so-called Great Resignation; the eruption of signing bonuses for low-wage jobs; record quit rates month after month; and increasingly strident and open critique of the way workers have been used and abused for decades. Union organizing is on the rise, at icons Starbucks and Amazon and beyond.

Borderline civil war simmers as companies ricochet between tolerance of remote work, embrace of a “hybrid model” whose requirements seem to change daily, and all-remote abandonment of the old office as we know it.

Flexibility has moved from the margins to the center of HR discussions. Change and distraction are happening so fast and on so many fronts that we’ve failed to see the underlying seismic shifts that will transform the workplace and workforce in profound and lasting ways over the next decade. Throw in Omicron and we enter 2022 with our collective brains fried.

Momentary vs. Lasting Change 

Over our long and turbulent labor history, a growing America has depended on several pillars of new workers to feed the insistent growth of workforces for its farms, mines, factories, hospitals and offices. When we needed millions, they showed up and performed productively through:

Continuing, massive immigration. Varying waves of millions of Chinese, German, Irish, and Jewish migrants came, endured resistance, then assimilation.

Internal migration/mobility. Notably millions of southern Black people migrated to the northern meccas of Detroit, Chicago, etc., and generations followed the jobs.

Reliable replacement birth rate. Healthy families seeing opportunity and the realization of their dreams via offspring regularly produced two-plus kids.

Employer-centric policies and practices. Unlike the rest of the developed world, from wages and leaves to ease of termination, employers ruled and employees adapted

But over the last several years, each of these reliable trends has taken a major hit. 

The Death of Plentiful Immigration 

Race-based opposition to immigration had been growing as the color of immigrants turned from European white to the darker shades of the rest of the world. The Trump presidency built more than a largely symbolic wall to “the other.” It ground all forms of immigration to a halt, stoking popular resistance and erecting legislative minefields. 

The Biden administration has not reversed most of these policies and practices. The symbol of this change is the fate of the so-called “Dreamers,” millions of desirable immigrants of the past who are likely to only dream of citizenship for decades to come.

Few Job Magnets for Internal Migration

Excluding the notable but modest flow of hard hats to the new oil fields, some tech companies to Austin and the rest of Texas, as well as an intriguing repopulation of African-Americans to Atlanta, there have been and are unlikely to be significant shifts in labor supply. The Great Migration was historic – and is likely history.

The Baby Drought

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the level at which a given generation can exactly replace itself is 2,100 births per 1,000 women. The U.S. rate has generally been below replacement since 1971 and has consistently been below replacement since 2007. The rate fell by 4% in the single year of 2020. Diverse and significant factors are driving this secular trend, and they are unlikely to be reversed either easily or soon. 

Employer-Centric Policies and Practices Are Being Widely Challenged

The pandemic disrupted work as we have known it for decades. Millions of people suddenly became effective working from home. Suddenly “work-life balance” was not a catch-all for a few benefits but the rejection of mind-numbing and time-wasting commutes; the abandonment of questionable office-based rituals and habits that kept people from their families, regular exercise, and healthy cooking and eating; and reconsideration of employees as humans with a broad range of self-care and caregiving needs. Suddenly, “take this job and shove it” was not just a catchy country tune.

Long-stalled movement is occurring on policies such as paid parental leave, sick leave, robust health insurance, and livable minimum wages. We are watching a worker shortage in a restaurant industry that features star chefs who act like sideline football coach bullies but has had to come to terms with employees who struggle for pay nowhere near the entry-level NFL linebacker — and are switching for less abusive alternatives. And recognizing that there is strength in numbers and organization, unions and union organizing are on the rise.

Where Is the Cavalry When We Need It?  

There is an obvious solution to this labor dilemma. With decades of abundant and compliant new and younger labor supply, American business could pursue its mantra that as workers aged they became both more expensive and disposable without consequence. Around age 55 and beyond, they became the front line in downsizings, restructuring, and inevitable downturns in the business cycle. As recently as 2020, business outlets reported the “retirement of a million workers 55+” — failing to mention that 90% of those departures were involuntary.

Old habits die hard. So while demography may not be destiny, it is a powerful persuader. According to a recent piece from the US Department of Labor:

The United States is undergoing a demographic shift that is changing older Americans’ relation to the workplace. The average and median age of the U.S. population is rising, and the composition of the workforce with it. By 2020, it is estimated that workers 55 and over will make up 25% of the U.S. civilian labor force, up from 13% in 2000. In addition, individual workers are tending to remain in the workforce longer and retire later. The number of workers over the traditional retirement age of 65 is seeing a marked increase, and it is projected that they will make up more than 7% of the American labor force by 2020. Employers rate older workers high on characteristics such as judgment, commitment to quality, attendance, and punctuality.

Just as business leaders were slow to recognize the value and potential of remote work, their age bias and opposition to new ways of working make them slow to recognize the obvious. As they slowly come to realize that creative approaches to recruitment and retention lead them to pursue an aging workforce, those older workers will want their own version of flexibility as part of any offer. Remote work combined with part-time and phased retirement schedules will seal the deal — and help offset the labor shortages that threaten sustained growth and prosperity. 

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