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Separating Myth from Fact About Age, Work

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Dear readers,

Employment is a significant issue on both national and personal levels.  Although surveys indicate that employers have a positive attitude towards older workers, that attitude often has little effect on hiring decisions.  Unfortunately ageism is still alive and well.

Instead of a Q & A, I would like to share some facts. Take the following myths quiz to help differentiate between myths and fact.   Hopefully, some employers will do the same. 

1. The percentage of the US population over 65 has nearly tripled since 1900.   True or False

2. There is a greater percentage of older workers in white-collar than blue-collar jobs.   True or False

3. The definition of “old” in the workplace is age 65.  True or False

4. The mandatory retirement age in the US is 65.   True or False

5. In some cases, it is legal for an employer to make employment decisions based on age.  True or False

6. Replacing an experienced worker at any age can cost 50 per cent or more of an employee’s salary in turnover related costs. True or False

7. Based on a 2009 Supreme Court ruling, in order to win age discrimination suit, a worker must prove that age was the sole factor in a layoff or demotion.   True or False

8. The current work environment is a good fit for experienced workers.   True or False


1. True. In 1900, the percentage of people in the U.S. age 65 and older was 4 percent.  Today it is 13 percent which translates to 38.9 million; 4.1 million of those 65 and older reside in California.  China, by the way,  leads the world with 112 million.

2. True. Older adults are more likely to have white-collar jobs because such jobs require abilities that are not adversely affected by aging, such as reading, writing and reasoning.  Blue-collar jobs usually require physical abilities that a more subject to changes, such as strength and response time. (Note: Of course, there always are exceptions.)

3. False. The definition of old depends on who is defining it.  Forty is considered “old” according to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, because 40 and older is an age-protected group.  Government agencies perceive “old” differently:  Sixty-five is the age to collect Medicare. The age to collect full Social Security benefits depends on the year you were born. If you were born between 1943 and 1954, the age is 66; if you were born in 1960 and later, the age is 67.  Being “old” is subjective.  An athlete may be considered “old” at 40, while a presidential candidate at 40 may be considered young.

4. False. There is no mandatory retirement age for most jobs.  The mandatory retirement age was removed in 1986 with an amendment to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

5. True. Employment decisions based on age are legal in a small number of cases, where age is considered a “bona fide occupational qualification” BFOQs apply to jobs related to public safety such as airline pilots, bus drivers and fire fighter.  The BFOQ also applies to models, members of the diplomatic corps and others.

6. True. An AARP-Towers Perin Report found that when you add up the turnover costs     of recruitment, interviewing, training and getting up to speed, the cost can be 50 percent or more of an employee’s salary.  A more recent study indicates the cost is     equivalent to one year’s salary or compensation.

7. True. The long-standing rule was that a worker needed to prove that age was just one of the factors in a layoff or demotion. The Supreme Court reversed that decision.  Now, age must be the sole factor, making it more difficult to prove age discrimination.

8. True. According to Peter Cappelli and Bill Novelli in their book “Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organization Order,” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2010), three situations are perfect for hiring experienced workers.

Evidence is provided by co-authors Peter Capelli, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and Bill Novelli, former CEO of AARP, in their book “Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order”(Harvard Business Review Press, 2010).

Here are the three reasons that the work environment is a good fit for experienced workers, according to the authors:

Reason No. 1: “Unpredictable and irregular needs for employees.” The authors write this is a win-win situation, connecting the special interests and needs of employers and employees.  Older adults often prefer a flexible work schedule, such as working part time or part of the year. Many want more control over their schedule, avoiding the full-time 9-to-5 routine.

At the same time, employers are trying to match their capacities to the changing needs of customers.  They need to extend store hours for shoppers, employ less staff when there is less demand, and increase their capabilities in high season or for special projects.  Experienced workers who happen to be older are available.

Reason No. 2: Meeting the need for “instant” skills.  New companies, or those that are moving to new locations, have to get up to speed quickly.  To train new employees how to do their job takes time ? and time is money.  The authors note that businesses that are expanding to new locations “now find it difficult to use the traditional start-up strategy of moving current employees from the existing operation to the new ones.”  The moves are expensive and often are resisted by two-career couples, compounded by concerns of uprooting and severing community and work ties.  Again, experienced workers are a “ready to go” human resource.

Reason No. 3: “Misjudgment of demand for skills.”  The authors note that if it takes a decade for technicians to master their skills, the employer must be able to forecast accurately the demand for technicians10 years in advance.  “That is beyond the capability of virtually any employer,” they write. Even with internal training and development programs, decision makers often misjudge the demand for skills.  Turning to outside experienced help solves their problem.  And often, that experienced help is older.

But there is more to this story.  We seem to be bound to language that ties aging to something negative. Years ago, I presented a program on aging to customer service operators at a large newspaper.  Apparently, the operators had little experience with older subscribers.

At the beginning of the session, I asked the operators if they would like to be referred to as an “older worker.”  Shouts of “no” were immediate.  They wanted to be called by their names.

It seems timely to “rebrand” – or rename – “older workers.”  This type of rebranding already is taking place.  The American Association of Retired Persons underwent a name change – it is now known exclusively by its letters, AARP.  And AARP’s publication, Modern Maturity, was renamed The Magazine.  Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal just renamed one of its sections from “Encore: A Guide to Retirement Planning and Living” to “Next:  Planning and Living the New Retirement.”

Many volunteer activities are now referred to as “civic engagement.” Working during retirement is a “working retiree.” When someone is 60 or older, a new career that makes a difference is an “encore career.”  And age 65 is now “midlife.”

It’s time to rebrand the older worker in terms of talent, experience, readiness and the ability to meet the needs of employers in 2010 and beyond.

Let’s give it a try!

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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