Reconsidering the Value of Older Workers
Editor’s Note: This was the feature article in this month’s TechCom Manager newsletter, reprinted here with permission. Click the previous link to subscribe to the newsletter.
by Buckley Jeppson
As documentation managers facing tight deadlines and tighter resources, we always strive to make sure we have the best possible team of workers. It stands to reason that when we need to fill a vacancy, we want the most experienced people we can find. But often, we skip over older workers in favor of younger ones. Why is that, and is it a wise business decision? Let’s take a look at why older workers might deserve more serious consideration.
The current economic slump has been especially hard on older victims of downsizing. I discovered this firsthand when the company where I expected to spend the rest of my working years suddenly became a victim of the economy and morphed into a virtual company with no office and only the president and vice president as full-time employees. After months of searching without a serious nibble, I began to approach a few personal friends in other industries for ideas.
“Face it,” my own brother, an excellent manager, told me, “If I had to choose between a 30-year-old with 7-9 years of experience in a technology field and a 60-year-old, all else being equal, the 30-year-old would get the job.” As a result, veteran workers—including many who have spent years as managers themselves—eventually realize their years as an employee are over. Independent contracting becomes their chief option.
The decision to automatically hire a younger person is counter-intuitive. You want a new worker to be experienced, willing to stick around without itching to move up the corporate ladder, and who will cost you less to hire, train, and maintain. Older workers fit the bill. There are many reasons why hiring older workers is a smart business decision for you.
The Potential Benefits
- Lower Cost. Many older workers want to work only 20 or 30 hours per week. Often, they have an insurance plan from another source and don’t need your company’s insurance. Some prefer seasonal or flexible schedules, so they might be perfect for your cyclical crunch times. Older workers tend to stay at the company, so your turnover costs will be greatly reduced.
- Maturity. There is no substitute for years of experience in the workplace. Change happens, rattling many younger workers and damaging their productivity. Mature workers have been through enough corporate shakeups, technology changes, and office moves that they are rarely phased. Experience teaches them to roll with the punches. For a worker who has moved from WordPerfect through Microsoft Word 6, 95, 97, 98, 2000, 2003, and 2007, the change to Word 2010 is no cause for weeks of water-cooler drama.
- Strong Work Ethic. Years of practice have shown older workers that there are no shortcuts to quality. Many managers complain that pride in a job well done is an increasingly rare trait in young workers who often seem more concerned with what the company owes them than what they can contribute. As a manager for many years, I can confirm that many (certainly not all) younger workers want do put in their hours and hit the road, while older workers are willing to stay longer to get a job done because it is a matter of personal integrity. Some managers report that their mature workers spend less time surfing the Web, checking their personal e-mail, playing with their cell phones, and stretching their lunch hours.
- Punctuality. Older workers tend to take their jobs more seriously. That translates to looking forward to work and arriving on time, ready to work.
- Dependability and Loyalty. “Many small businesses are finding that the mature worker is dependable, loyal, and will stay longer than younger workers who operate more like free agents in baseball,” says Bob Skladany, Director of Research at Retirementjobs.com. They are less likely to suffer from substance abuse, to leave the job without notice, to job hop, or to abuse company resources. In a 2007 survey of human-resource professionals at more than 500 organizations by Boston College’s Center on Aging and Work, 22.4% said it was very true that early-career employees were loyal to the company, compared to 53.8% who said late-career employees were loyal to the company.
- Focus and Attention. Experience brings a sense of focus and attention to details that matter. Generally, older workers know the points of weakness in the documentation process. They know how much time it takes to do which steps and they plan accordingly. This contributes to the quality of your company’s work. While working as an editorial manager in a publishing company, I learned to entrust the final proofreading of a book to one older reader who I knew felt had a personal investment in the process. She saved us from embarrassment several times, catching the misspelling of an author’s name on the title page, flagging tables containing figures that didn’t add up, and in many other ways showed the value of a truly dedicated worker.
- Stability. According to a 2007 Center for Creative Leadership survey, more than 60% of Early Boomers (ages 53-61) agree that they would like to stay with their current organization for the rest of their working lives, compared with less than 30% of Late GenXers (ages 21-30). You can count on older workers to be a stabilizing force for your team, creating continuity across projects over time.
- Communication Skills. Years of experience teach one when and how to communicate ideas. Older workers understand office politics and diplomacy. They tend to be good listeners and to speak up when it’s appropriate. Because experience teaches listening skills, you will probably find that you only have to tell an older employee once what to do.
- Mentoring. I have noted that younger workers will tend to respect mature workers as role models. Veteran workers make good mentors and trainers for new employees, freeing managers to focus on other duties.
The Perceived Drawbacks
What about the possible downsides to hiring mature workers?
- Permanence. Will an older worker stay at the job as long as a younger one? In a 2003 AARP study, 68% of workers age 50-70 said they never intended to retire. More than three out of four said they would work for reasons other than financial. These workers want to remain in the workplace longer and salary isn’t their primary motivator. That sounds like an ideal workforce.
- Technical Abilities. Today’s mature workers are more technically savvy than you might imagine. They bring a deep and broad background of experience with different operating systems and software applications. They are used to adapting to changing technology. At age 54, Bill Gates is considered an older worker, as are Steve Jobs (55), usability guru Jakob Nielsen (52), and information-design expert Edward Tufte (68).
- Creative Thinking. Economist David Galenson of the University of Chicago identified two types of creativity. One he calls “conceptual innovation”, a new idea that breaks the mold. The other is “experimental innovation”, new ideas that build and extend current ways of doing things. Although the first form of creativity can occur at any time, it is most common early in an individual’s working life. In contrast, endeavors that require the individual to build on current practice in innovative ways happen in a person’s 40s, 50s and beyond. Tolstoy published Anna Karenina just before turning 50 and Frank Lloyd Wright was at work on his design for the Guggenheim Museum when he died in 1959 at age 91. These people possessed the kind of creativity that mature workers bring to their jobs, the kind you are most likely to need as a documentation manager. Usually, you are looking for smart, experienced workers — not inventors of cutting-edge technology.
- Team Integration. Adding an older worker to a very young team presents some interesting opportunities and challenges. Anticipate the reaction and be prepared. Honestly inventory your reasons for hiring the person and use those reasons when you introduce your new employee. “Margaret has many years of experience writing user documentation under tight deadlines, so I’m confident she can handle most anything here. You will all need to help bring her up to speed on our new product, of course, but I expect she has a lot of tips to share with us about keeping on schedule while improving our quality.”
Restricting your hiring to a specific age group is illegal. If you ask, “How old are you?” you are in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which protects folks age 40 and over. These regulations are in place to protect discrimination against older workers, just as there are regulations to protect against discrimination based on sex, color, race, religion, national origin, or physical disability. That’s how serious the federal government feels this problem is. What is the average age of your team members?
We like to think of ourselves as enlightened leaders and managers, interested in a diverse workforce and open to hiring and retaining the very best people. It’s time to prove it and act in our company’s best interests. Hire the most experienced, mature, attentive, focused, and dependable talent available.
Make a concerted effort to attract older workers to your team. Suggest that your HR department recruit from Retirementjobs.com, Seniors4hire.org, Seniorjobbank.com, or other focused groups. Propose they change their message to something like, “We pride ourselves in the diversity of our workforce,” and show photos that include older workers. As one HR professional put it, “Not every office looks like a GAP ad.” We all want the best people on our teams, so it would be foolish to automatically pass over those who are likely to be the most talented and loyal employees you will ever have.
If you are ever tempted to think of workers in their 50s as old, remind yourself that when they were recent college graduates, they were listening to music by Blondie, the Ramones, and the Sex Pistols. So much for stereotypes.
- Retiring the generation gap: How employees young and old can find common ground. The Center for Creative Leadership, 2007.
- The Multi-Generational Workplace. The Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, 2007.
- The National Study Report. The Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, 2007.
- Workers Age 50+: Planning for Tomorrow’s Talent Needs in Today’s Competitive Environment. AARP, 2005.
About the Author
After years of supervising documentation teams, Buckley Jeppson now works as an independent information analyst and trainer. Based in Portland, Oregon, he helps organizations and government agencies understand their users’ needs and works with them to organize their information assets to align with those needs. Buck is a regular contributor to information design blogs and publications.