Too many of us know someone with a story like this one shared with us from a person in Fitchburg: “I was let go one month shy of my 60th birthday. Worked at my company for 28 years. Some of my colleagues retired early, in their late 50s. They couldn’t take the harassment, pressure, and exhortations to work many overtime hours and wanted to leave on their own terms rather than waiting to be thrown out.”
This gentleman’s employer viewed age as a liability. Smarter organizations view their employees’ longevity as an asset: Their experience, lower turnover rates, ability to foster higher customer satisfaction, and diverse perspectives are among the crucial contributions older workers offer.
It’s more urgent than ever that more organizations recognize these contributions. As the world’s population ages, legacy approaches to aging and the workforce are no longer viable. Expectations of retirement between 60 and 65 were appropriate when life expectancy was shorter, but with the gift of longevity, the way we think about aging and employment must shift.
By working longer, older adults are more likely to remain physically and mentally active, are better able to support themselves financially, and (our research shows) stay four times more socially engaged. With studies showing that social isolation is a health determinant equal to smoking 15 cigarettes per day, social engagement alone must be viewed as vital to good health.
Postponed retirements are similarly beneficial to the economy as a whole: increasing GDP, providing skilled (e.g., the life sciences) and less-skilled (e.g., retail) labor in a tight labor market, and reducing public health costs because people are active and engaged.
When it comes to aging, working longer solves (almost) everything — for employers and all of their employees.
In our roles with the Age-Friendly Institute and RetirementJobs.com, we’ve found that there are three main reasons why employers choose to recruit and retain older adults: to reduce turnover, to improve customer satisfaction, and to augment diversity initiatives.
Reduce turnover. The average length of service of a worker over 50 is 10 years, according to government data. That’s three times higher than those under 50.
Improve customer satisfaction. Experts tie lower turnover to higher customer satisfaction. They’ve observed, for example, that a longer-tenured employee is better able to show a customer where an item is located in a store because the employee has more in-store experience. Satisfied customers are then more likely to be return customers and even build rapport with store staff. Businesses appreciate that even the slightest increases in customer satisfaction impact store profitability.
Augment diversity initiatives. Employers recognize the benefit of having a workforce that mirrors their communities and customers. This recognition has spurred the growth of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs that now include a focus on age.
The sectors where there are the greatest employer demand and associated employment opportunity for older adults include health care (particularly in-home elder care), transportation, security, government, and credible work-at-home companies. There are employers, for example, hiring thousands of online tutors to teach English as a second language.
In order to help older workers connect with employers who value what they bring to the table, we launched the Certified Age Friendly Employer program 15 years ago. To earn the “age-friendly” designation, organizations must meet our criteria across a dozen categories related to compensation, benefits, and workplace culture. We conduct quantitative reviews of these categories and others and review qualitative evidence about C-suite commitment to hiring and retaining employees as well as creating an environment that is respectful of workers 50-plus. CAFE program participants now also include tech and creative firms, where age bias was once believed to be the most entrenched.
Of the more than one hundred employers on the institute’s national CAFE list, many are from Massachusetts. They include 2Life Communities, Benchmark, Fidelity Investments, Lasell Village, Mass General Brigham, and Point32Health (formerly Tufts Health Plan). These companies benefit from improved brand value and also learn where they stand compared with peer groups by industry sector, region, and organizational size.
Policy makers are also championing the cause by shining a light on employers deemed age-friendly. The US Senate Special Committee on Aging has recognized the CAFE Program. One of the top recommendations from Governor Charlie Baker’s Council to Address Aging was the further promotion and encouragement of age-friendly employers. The Baker administration should put even more meat on this bone. To bolster the state’s position as a longevity hub, Massachusetts should lead the nation in creating policies that motivate employers to keep older people like the person from Fitchburg on staff.
In our roles, we are fortunate to hear stories about age-friendly employers every day. We met a Needham man whose employer kept him on staff in a phased-retirement role when he turned 65. The arrangement was good for him, his employer, and younger staff coming up through the ranks behind him who were able to benefit from his experience, mentorship, and institutional knowledge.
Despite the persistence of antiquated and sometimes discriminatory ways of thinking about aging and retirement, many stories like these exist. We need more of them.
Tim Driver is president of the Age-Friendly Institute. He also founded RetirementJobs.com. Jody Shue is executive director of the Age-Friendly Institute. Alice Bonner is a director with the Age-Friendly Institute and the former Massachusetts secretary of the Executive Office of Elder Affairs.