Keeping employees from leaving their jobs has not been a hard sell for employers during the extended U.S. jobless recovery. Most people are happy to have jobs these days, and finding replacement employees is easy except in high-skilled trades.
As the economy slowly recovers, however, employers will face tighter job markets. Millions of baby boomers will be moving into the traditional retirement ages, and the ranks of replacement workers will be shrinking. This is a demographic certainty. Yes, some, perhaps many, older workers will defer retirements. But a labor-supply squeeze of major proportions could be in the offing.
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This would not be a small trend, but a big consequence of the age wave. When it hits, we will begin to see whether employers are willing or able to make the adjustments to accommodate an aging society and workforce.
Instead of waving goodbye to older employees, some employers will instead make a concerted effort to retain employees past their typical retirement age. "Leaders of organizations actually see older workers as having many strengths to contribute," says workplace expert Jackie James. "They are more loyal, they have a strong work ethic, and they're reliable. They are not as likely [as younger employees] to turn over or leave the organizations. And they have broad networks of professional contacts" that are valuable in many ways to their employers.
James is director of research at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, which is researching aging workforces in a number of different countries, including ongoing surveys of more than 11,000 employees at two dozen worksites in 11 countries. Beyond looking at differing work experiences that are directly linked to age, researchers find more nuanced factors that determine how older employees feel about their jobs. They include career status (which can differ from chronological age), family caregiving needs, and other variables that shape job satisfaction and performance.
"Contrary to popular opinion, older workers are the most engaged" in their jobs, "and forward-thinking companies need to begin strategizing about how to capitalize on this asset," says Sloan Center Director Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes.
Here are five "senior friendly" programs that employers should consider developing or expanding. They apply to all employees but are particularly appropriate for an aging workplace.
1. Part-time jobs. Many employees in their late 60s and 70s can continue to be extremely productive by working a reduced schedule. Employers keep their expertise while the employees have less grueling work lives and can make the transition to an extended "semi-retirement" that could last for a decade or more.
2. Job sharing. This may go beyond part-time work to include a formal job-sharing arrangement where two or even three employees could be responsible for fulfilling the requirements of a single position. They would be a self-contained job "team" and can negotiate hours and other responsibilities among themselves to meet an employer's needs. In both part-time and job-sharing arrangements, devising a workable and affordable way to retain health insurance and other benefits may represent major challenges. Yet many older employees might well accept pay cuts to maintain benefits. Devising some hybrid Medicare coverage might reduce health insurance costs for older employees and help employers offer attractive, part-time work packages.
3. Continuous training. All employees can benefit from regular refreshing of their job skills. Such programs can help longtime employees keep pace with emerging job requirements, especially in technology and other fast-changing job skills.
4. Cross-generational mentoring. An aging workplace will feature wider age ranges. Generational differences do exist and are often emphasized in concerns about workplace relationships. But there are powerful benefits that younger and older workers can offer one another. Older employers can be mentoring "givers" in imparting experiences to younger colleagues. But those colleagues may, in turn, be able to mentor older employees about new technologies, social networking tools, and other aspects of today's collaborative workplaces.
5. Flexible schedules. Older employees who have demonstrated solid work habits and reliability are prime candidates for telecommuting from home plus other flexible work schedules.