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Employers Should Bet Future on Older Workers?

Posted Dec 02 2008 6:26pm

I just read a recent opinion piece by William J. Rothwell (professor of workforce education and development at Penn State University) and Diane Spokus ( faculty member in health policy and administration at Penn State) titled  Employers Should Bet Future on Older Workers.

The question to employers that Rothwell and Spokus ask is this: 

Employers are facing a future workforce different from the past. There are fewer younger workers, and older workers are becoming more sought-after. How many employers are really prepared to attract, manage, develop and retain older workers, and how many employers are prepared to re-think age-old stereotypes about older people?

In their commentary, Mr. Rothwell and Ms. Spokus present two myths (and explanations) regarding older workers:

  1. Myth One: It costs more to retain older workers than it does to recruit younger workers: Many older workers may receive higher salaries, but when hidden replacement costs are factored in for the higher turnover of younger workers during their early years of employment, the actual cost savings is in keeping with experienced employees.
  2. Myth Two: The costs for health and other benefits cost more for older workers: In fact, older workers have fewer acute illnesses, while younger workers have more dependents. So the reality is that overall benefits may work out to be the same for older as for younger workers.

I have no idea if #1 or #2 are in fact myths and I'm not sure it even matters.

Here is why.

As the authors correctly point out, more Baby Boomers are living longer and there are fewer younger workers entering the U.S. workforce.  OK.  While both of these points are correct, the " fewer younger workers entering the U.S. workforce" is not why Baby Boomers will stay in the workforce longer. This is a global economy so you cannot look at the U.S. workforce in a vacuum. You have to look at the global workforce and globally, there are plenty of educated younger workers available for employment. 

But I digress.

There is only one reason we are likely to see more older workers in the U.S. workforce and it isn't complicated:

Most Boomers have no choice. And many that do have a choice are choosing to work.

People are living longer. Those who have not saved enough for retirement must continue to work. Especially with the housing slump and falling stock market.  And many who can retire don't want to. For this reason, I do not believe we'll see a mass exodus of older workers from the workforce and I don't think we will face a labor shortage on any broad scale.

So what does this mean for employers and older workers?

According to Mr. Rothwell and Ms. Spokus, older workers need to " take responsibility for their own development" and employers should " revise human resources policies to provide flexible work schedules and job sharing opportunities for older workers" and also invest in training for older workers and those who manage them.

I agree (and I think it is already happening). 

BTW, Mr. Rothwell and Ms. Spokus have a book titled Working Longer: New Strategies for Managing, Training, and Retaining Older Employees that you might find interesting. 

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