Writing a New Contract Between Employers and Older Workers
Joseph F. Coughlin is director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab (http://agelab.mit.edu). His research explores how demographic change, technology and consumer behavior drive innovations in business and society. Coughlin teaches in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the Sloan School's Advanced Management Program. He is author of the new book The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World's Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market (Public Affairs, 2017).
Older workers are news these days. Consider two contrasting New York Times stories reported on the same day. Nelson Schwartz writes in Easy Out the Gray-Haired. Or Not., that older workers, regardless of industry, are being shown the door due to “leaner and meaner” business realities and changing traditions. In law firms, for example, older partners traditionally transition to ‘senior statemen’ status in their practices. That was yesterday. Today, they are being “eased out”. As Schwartz quotes one observer “Very few people are so skilled that they can’t be replaced by a younger, more current practitioner”.
Not so fast. A few pages away the Times’ Patricia Olsen with Don Spivack, the former Deputy Chief of Operations for the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles, pen a story Retired, but Doing the Work You Love. Spivack, one of many 50 or 60-somethings offered ‘retirement’ deals that were hard to refuse, retired last December. But, only three weeks later, was invited back as a consultant to fill the gaps of lost knowledge that Spivack and many of his colleagues took with them when shown the golden path to the door.
The New York Times stories show a conflict that is only going to grow in today’s aging workplace. At odds are older workers who want to stay in the workplace for a variety of economic and social reasons and employers trying to cut costs and ensure fresh talent and new energy. Resolution of this dynamic conflict demands a new contract between employers and older workers.
Both employers and employees are showing their age. Many companies are holding on to beliefs and related practices that were developed decades earlier when talent was plentiful and business was less complex. Likewise, many employees believe that seniority is a reason to remain employed and handsomely compensated. To remain productive and competitive both need to change.
Here are some recommendations for both employers and employees to survive and thrive the new disruptive demographics of an aging workplace.
Be Creative – Many older workers do want to cut back their hours. Few want to stop work altogether. For some employees this may be a desire to slow down after decades of work, for others it may be to care for a failing parent or frail spouse. It is time that the creative energy that was used to invent the flexible workplace for the very same workers to raise children decades earlier be applied today to enable new approaches to work schedules, job descriptions and employee evaluation practices.
Be Smart – Knowledge management is a multi-million dollar enterprise for consultants and information technology firms. Yet, the knowledge that keeps your business competitive is not in a database. It is between the ears of your employees – most often your oldest employees. Petrochemical, defense contracting, nuclear engineering, health care are just a few industries where the workforce is aging – and there are few younger candidates banging on the doors to replace these knowledge workers. In Europe, and parts of Asia, it is more than a talent gap, it simply a numbers gap – there are simply fewer younger people. In addition to investing in knowledge management systems, create systems where younger and older employees are incentivized to mentor each other. Older employees sharing what the company and they know with younger employees and new employees teaching fresh from school techniques to their experienced colleagues.
Be Flexible – Many employees may not choose to stay in the same field after decades of work. Be prepared that the face of the new job candidate may not be a young fresh out in new shoes with a nervous look, but an older individual who is seeking to use their experience or even recent ‘back to school’ education to change careers and be part of the entering class of trainees.
Older workers must realize that the key to staying in the workforce is no different than when they were younger – they must make the business case everyday why they (and not someone else) should occupy their position. Here are three places to start:
Be Fit – Most discussions of older workers focus on salaries. While that is part of the cost of older workers, so is health and well-being. Health and fitness bring obvious personal benefits but also energy to the workplace. Staying fit across the lifespan and managing chronic conditions are key to managing employer healthcare costs as well as minimizing the invisible but very real costs of presenteeism and absenteeism due to poor health or less than optimal well-being.
Be Savvy – Experience matters. But, experience is only as good as it can be applied to the changing context of work and business. The rationale used by many employers that they need ‘new talent’ is their belief that older experienced workers do not understand nor are interested in learning new techniques and methods that will bring innovation to the business. Corporate training programs can only go so far – personal curiosity, investment in training, classes or even degrees programs as well as learning from younger colleagues are ingredients to remaining competitive in the job market.
Be Value-added – Senior employees are the most likely to be highly compensated. That compensation should be based not upon time in service, but value-added to the business today. For some firms this means developing and managing new clients. Other organizations value new ideas. Some companies look for employees who can mentor younger employees and ensure that the product or service delivered lives up to appropriate company standards or brand promise.
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- Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.
Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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