In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the U.S. is experiencing unemployment on a large scale. As businesses cautiously reopen, older workers might be at higher risk of contracting the virus—and might find their jobs at risk, too. Will the pandemic derail the trend of only a few months ago, when 20% of people older than 65 were still on the job—up from only 12% in the 1990s?
Lady Ros Altmann, a British life peer who formerly served as the U.K. pensions minister, warns that some companies may use seniors’ greater vulnerability to the virus to discriminate against them when it comes to layoffs and hiring. Some demographers predict that in the face of the pandemic, many seniors will retire earlier than planned. Yet in today’s economically uncertain times, older workers may be all the more motivated to continue working, even as this means looking for a new job in a tough market.
Does it make sense to hire older workers? Businesses should examine their preconceptions. First, let’s dispel some myths:
Myth #1: Older workers aren’t a good investment. In fact, older workers bring experience, dependability, judgment, loyalty and higher productivity to the workplace. They are a good role model for younger colleagues. And did you know that they actually take fewer sick days than younger employees?
Myth #2. Seniors have trouble learning new things, and it’s not cost effective to provide training for them since they are going to retire soon. In fact, many older workers were in the vanguard of the digital age and have remained up to speed. Providing ongoing training to update their skills is a minor investment to retain knowledgeable, competent workers. And at the pace technology changes, coupled with more frequent “job hopping” among younger workers, older adults are as likely as younger workers to still be on the job when the next skills upgrade is needed!
Myth #3: Older workers are just coasting along—they would retire if they could afford it. It’s certainly true that retirement is financially more difficult today. Traditional pension plans have mostly evaporated, many elders haven’t saved enough for a comfortable retirement, and greater longevity means their nest eggs need to last longer. However, many seniors stay on the job because they enjoy their work, as well as the sense of purpose and social context.
Myth #4: If seniors don’t collect the gold watch at 65, this keeps younger workers from advancing. Is there a more-repeated stereotype about older workers? We often see social media posts about seniors hanging on to jobs that could go to younger workers. The ugly “boomer remover” comments during the pandemic have been in part a perpetuation of this myth. “It is not true that each older worker in a job denies employment to a younger person,” said Altmann. “This is not how economies work. If older people stop work, they will have lower spending power and ultimately there will be fewer jobs for younger people.”
Myth #5: As companies today set goals to foster a more diverse, inclusive workplace, age isn’t a consideration. In fact, says the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the law prohibits discrimination in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, benefits, and any other term or condition of employment. Age discrimination is discrimination.
Experts say companies can adapt the workplace to retain and ensure the productivity of valuable older employees in several ways:
Safety and ergonomic upgrades. Health challenges, such as mobility problems and reduced vision, are most common among older workers. But making ergonomic adaptations and adding safety equipment to accommodate elders also benefits younger workers with disabilities—and helps businesses remain ADA-compliant. It also lowers the incidence of injuries, back pain, eyestrain, hearing loss, stress-related illness, repetitive stress injuries and a host of other potential work-related health problems.
Retirement flexibility. Today many older workers are moving into a different pathway at their companies, working part time, working from home, or job sharing. Some might walk out the door after retiring from a job—only to walk right back in the next day as a consultant. This allows seniors to spend some time in traditional retirement pursuits, while the flexibility benefits employers, as well.
Actively opposing systemic ageism. Maybe you saw the “Saturday Night Live” sketch in April which portrayed a company’s first Zoom meeting—with two older women struggling to take part. Was it funny, or was it cruel? Research shows that ageism is pernicious for seniors and co-workers alike. Diversity training and creating an atmosphere of inclusion help build an intergenerational team of supportive co-workers. Younger workers also should know that if they have a negative attitude about older people, they are, in turn, less likely to be healthy in their own later years!
Caregiver accommodation and elder care benefits. One not-so-negative myth about older workers is that they don’t need to take off time to care for kids. The most obvious flaw in this belief is that these days, in part due to the opioid epidemic, more grandparents have custody of their grandchildren. Beyond that, more and more older workers are providing care for aging parents, grandparents, ill spouses and other relatives with disabilities. A 70-year-old worker who needs time off to provide care support for his 95-year-old mom isn't rare these days! The AARP reports that employers that offer caregiver support, such as an employee assistance program, flexible work schedules and an atmosphere that is positive toward caregivers, are rewarded by more productive and loyal workers.
Older workers find a niche in professional in-home care.
We’d be remiss not to take special note of a growing trend. Many older workers are switching career gears to start a new job in one of the fastest-growing business sectors: senior care. Senior living communities, home care agencies, memory care facilities and other organizations that provide care for elders report that older workers are patient, understanding, experienced, and often preferred by clients.
Right at Home is proud to employ these caregivers. Many are drawn to the job because they served in the past as caregivers for family members. They arrive at the job on day one with a wealth of knowledge and experience! These valuable professionals report that while they are supplementing their retirement income, they also enjoy the emotional boost that comes from helping others and giving back to the community.