Risky Business? Here’s Why You Need to Embrace Your Older Workforce

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Aug 17, 2012

Recently I bumped into an acquaintance who had “gone gray,” as in let her gray hair grow out after coloring for years.

It occurred to me that I could save a lot of money and time by doing the same and really, after 27 year of coloring, who am I fooling at this point?

This minor cosmetic act is becoming quite the litmus test in my workplace, with women my age (50-plus) either praising my courage or questioning my judgment.  Suddenly my hair is as talked about as Justin Bieber and Tom Brady’s, and this reaction got me thinking more seriously about my (I thought) trivial decision.

Risky business??

Why is graying perceived as risky? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, older workers have a lower unemployment rate than their juniors. This same article speculates that the older workers stay on the job because most don’t have pensions and need to build up their defined-contribution retirement plans to ensure a comfortable retirement.

While finances are an important driver, economic uncertainty doesn’t completely explain why most of the 50- and 60-something working people I know are still working and plan to for some time to come.  From carpenters to surgeons, they’re operating at the peak of their professional capabilities, and in no hurry to hang up that sense of contribution and accomplishment.

But graying is a risky act.  That same BLS data notes that once unemployed, older workers tend to re­main jobless for longer pe­riods than younger workers.

If we’re valuable enough to keep on the job, why doesn’t that experience translate to success in the job search?  Because those hoary stereotypes about older people persist. Those of us who rallied to the cry not to trust anybody over 30, now cast a wary eye at the younger generation who are quick to see us sitting out on the lanai with Blanche and Dorothy.

It’s mutually beneficial for organizations and older workers for the latter to remain active in the workforce for as long as they can. Across the developed world, lower birthrates coupled with advances in healthcare are leading to growing populations of elders being supported by increasingly smaller working populations.

Companies NEED older workers, but …

According to a 2011 survey by Bank of America, 94 percent or respondents said they think it’s important to keep older workers because the companies need their skills. But are they taking action to retain those older workers? Only about half of these employers are offering flexible schedules and just 22 percent give them the opportunity to work remotely.

Organizations that do provide semi-retirement, part-time and flexible scheduling options can continue to reap the benefit of the experience and mentoring older workers provide.

The average age at Vita Needle, a medical supply manufacturer in Needham, Massachusetts, is 74.  While acknowledging some of the special challenges presented by employees likely to have more significant health issues, Frederick Hartman, Vita’s director of marketing and engineering, emphasizes, “The older workers are loyal; many have worked here 10 to 15 years and feel a sense of community. They also feel pride that their finished product is often used in medical applications that can save someone’s life or make it better.”

At 55, I think full retirement is at least 10 years in the future for me – not because I have to work, but because I want to work.  I’m going to take my chances and let that silver freak flag fly.

I’ll fit right in with the celebrities embracing their inner silver foxiness. But just in case I get the feeling that my hair is sending an unintended message about my value, I’ll keep my colorist on speed dial.

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