Hiring Smarter as the Workforce Gets Older

The U.S. workforce is growing steadily older. From 1930 to 1970, the median age went from 26 to 28, an increase in age equal to about two weeks per year. From 1970 to 2003, the median age increased from 28 to 36, an average increase in age of roughly three months per year. This amounts to an increase in aging of about 600 percent. The increasing age of the U.S. population will continue for many years into the future, barring any massive shifts in people’s birth rates or longevity. The workforces of Japan and most European countries are aging much faster than the U.S. workforce. The workforces of China and India are also growing steadily older. The increased age of the workforce will have significant impacts in terms of the kinds of candidates available to staff future jobs.

People change as they get older, and these changes will create fundamental shifts in workforce capabilities. Few people over 40 could or would want to perform the jobs they had when they were 18. I used to bus tables back as a teenager. Though I like to think that I’ve stayed in reasonable shape as the years rolled by, returning to a job that involved carrying dishes 40 hours a week for a fairly modest hourly wage sounds neither physically, intellectually, nor financially appealing. Although people may deny it, with age comes some predictable and fundamental changes in our interests and capabilities. Staffing directors need to plan for the fact that employing older workers is not the same as employing younger workers. Future staffing strategies must pay greater attention to the interests, motives, abilities, and constraints typically found in older workers. Smart companies will consider the following factors as they make greater use of older workers:

  1. Decreased tolerance for certain kinds of work or work demands. Many older workers, particularly those with highly valuable skills, are likely to be in a financial and personal position where they can exhibit considerable choice over how they want to spend their time. Such employees are more likely to demand work schedules and assignments that fit their interests, even if they do not fully align with the company’s needs. Companies looking to recruit older workers should take a hard look at whether the job opportunities they are offering are truly going to appeal to these workers. This will require a high degree of flexibility when it comes to designing jobs based on the interests of the candidates, instead of looking for candidates whose interests fit with the demands of the job.
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  3. Greater experiential knowledge. Older workers often possess a wealth of knowledge and expertise about certain work-related topics. This knowledge is likely to be particularly useful when associated with tasks and activities that are relatively stable over time and that are not radically impacted by changes in technology or the broader economic landscape. Older workers are particularly likely to possess more knowledge and experience than their younger colleagues when it comes to skills related to working with other people, managing employees, and providing customer service.
  4. Difficulty rapidly learning new types of knowledge. The advantage of growing older is that we accumulate more knowledge that we can draw on to solve problems. The disadvantage is that we tend to become less efficient at learning highly novel or unfamiliar skills and information. For example, the older we are, the larger our vocabulary tends to be in our predominant language. If English is our predominant language, then the older we get the better our communication skills tend to become ó as long as we are using English. Where older people run into difficulty relative to younger people is when they have to learn a completely new language. Older workers tend to know more, so there is less they need to learn. When they do need to learn something, it may require more time and effort than would be needed for a younger worker. This does not mean that older workers cannot learn new skills, but it may take them longer on average than younger workers. Companies planning to hire from an older labor pool should take this into account when creating new employee training and development curriculums.
  5. Health issues. As people grow older, they become susceptible to certain health risks. Potential health limitations and issues are likely to play a greater role when designing and staffing jobs that must be performed by older workers. This will play a particularly major role when staffing more physically demanding jobs such as those associated with a lot of hourly work. To effectively employ older workers in these jobs, it may be necessary to redesign the jobs so that they have much shorter shifts and far fewer physically demanding tasks.

These are some of the differences that tend to exist between older and younger workers. They should be considered when planning staffing strategies for a workforce with more older workers. At the same time, remember that young and old workers remain more similar than different. Regardless of age, most people want the same general things from work: challenge, opportunity, respect, and work-life balance. The observations made in this article are generalizations about older workers as a whole, but all older workers will not necessarily have these strengths and limitations. When selecting employees, companies should focus solely on the capabilities of each candidate on their own merit and avoid assumptions based on demographic status.

Steven Hunt, Ph.D., SPHR, is Director of Business Transformation at SuccessFactors. Previously he was Chief Scientist at Kronos Incorporated, guides development of technology enabled talent management solutions. His experience spans many industries including retail, healthcare, dining, manufacturing, information technology, and transportation. An active author and speaker, Dr. Hunt regularly presents at conferences and has written dozens of articles for trade and peer-reviewed journals. He is also author of Hiring Success, a book published by the Society of Human Resource Management on the use of staffing assessment tools. He holds a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology and a B.A. in applied mathematics.

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