Writing a New Contract Between Employers and Older Workers

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.

For employers:

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.

Further Reading:

Disruptive Demographics in the Workplace: New Strategies for an Aging Workforce

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