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Ageism In The Workplace

Look around. How many different age groups are represented in your company? Not that you may have given much consideration to the disparity in ages before, but due to economics and demographics, dealing with ageism is thrust upon us. People of the same generation have different personalities and points of view. Multiply that diversity by age ranges and there is a matrix of considerations if you want a successful and smoothly run operation. We have a small group here at Greco Apparel but still have employees in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s.

Almost 90 percent of us will experience some factor that causes derailment of our plans to accumulate the required assets for retirement. While the symptoms may be beyond our control, the prescription to deal with this issue both on social and economic planes is ultimately within our grasp.

I visited the U.S. Coast Guard uniform distribution center yesterday. The youngest recruits start at age 19, and the people distributing the uniforms are well into their 50s. Despite this disparity they obviously need to communicate. Do they speak the same language literally and figuratively?
Two of the supply officers in charge have served for 25 years. While they were inducted into the same Cape May, N.J., base, generations have changed. To get today’s recruits ready for active duty takes a measure of sensitivity and understanding. Everyone needs to perform their jobs in a coordinated effort on land and sea.

Whether your customers are young or your associates are older, understanding and coping with age differences is now unavoidable. And technology moves the generations along rapidly. Years ago, cell phone usage on the Coast Guard base was not a consideration. What do you do with “kids” who can’t live without texting? The Coast Guard has solved that dilemma by allowing a weekly time for cell phone use during their eight weeks of basic training. But it’s clear to see that what would motivate someone in their 20s today is different than one of the same age 30 years ago. As in uniforms, one size does not typically fit all and this notion is valid when applied to motivation and communication across the age groups. It first takes understanding.

That we grow old is inevitable. That we meet the challenges of an evidently aging workforce is optional. The retirement age of 65 was based upon an idea of social insurance suggested by German Chancellor von Bismarck in 1881 when the life expectancy was 48 years. According to actuarial tables, that German plan for social security easily would be funded. Assured funding of our Social Security is not so safe to assume today in the USA. Because of economic and medical events and advances, our lives have changed dramatically over the last century. This necessitates examination of policies and practices to confirm that previous programs will deliver the financial security we expect.

One economic factor that has not changed in years is that more than 70 percent of the population will not have saved enough to be financially independent in retirement, particularly at the 65 age target. Add to this the reduction in personal assets due to the recent Great Recession along with a burgeoning Boomer generation attaining retirement at the rate of 10,000 people per day and we have a social situation that is changing and beyond our control. People are living longer with life expectancy currently around 80 years. The cost of longer years of living coupled with increased medical costs supporting the extension of life results in a demand for additional income. Healthy people may choose to work additional years, but those financially insecure may not have a choice except to work later in life. Factors may include unexpected support of children or grandchildren, bad investment decisions or job loss. Almost 90 percent of us will experience some factor that causes derailment of our plans to accumulate the required assets for retirement.

While the symptoms may be beyond our control, the prescription to deal with this issue both on social and economic planes is ultimately within our grasp. There are a number of key issues we need to understand so a positive protocol can be designed with a focus on what can be done in our businesses to both recognize the issue of aging and plan accordingly to use available resources for the benefit of the organization.

From a psychosocial viewpoint, Robert Kegan writes in “In Over Our Heads” that we need to be aware of “a transformational view that a new threshold of consciousness be reached. Definition of human development is extended past the stage of early adulthood. The need to retire idea stems from the view that adolescence is the last demarcated phase of life span.” Kegan outlines a list of career-related tasks that change as we progress through the decades of our work life. It is important to understand this mental basis of change of age so that we can address the myths and stereotypes that would hinder proper planning for aging workers.

For example, in our 40s we enter a period of peak work commitment, achievement and recognition. We take on supervising, mentoring and management functions along with a possible midlife career change to meet changing personal values and priorities. In our 50s our careers are culminating and we act as mentor/advisor, “putting in time” and ensuring retirement security. The unskilled may face age-related employment problems or forced termination, Kegan prophesized almost 20 years ago in his book. And in our 60s, we prepare for and realize retirement, detaching from the formal work role with related changes in status, income and life structure.

Since those words were written, the activities and roles may be the same but the timeframe is moved forward. More frequently now we see cases where people work into their 90s, such as fabric king Roger Milliken or Supreme Court justices. The transformational thinking would have to address how the worker is managing psychologically. Not just focus on what the job requires but what the person requires and how that matches capabilities and performance. While we recognize the value of understanding personal needs, the care and feeding of the “golden goose” still demands attention. How can the corporate culture be organized to assist and enable selfpsychological management? What training is required to meet the challenges of age-related issues?

To understand the possible solutions let us first examine, and if appropriate dispel, the myths and stereotypes to which we have grown attached. Using references from the Australian Human Rights Commission and the University of Hawaii, we learn that it is incorrect that mature workers are more costly. In fact they are less likely to resign, they call in sick less often, and they experience fewer work injuries. All of this saves money, particularly on recruiting and training. Barring disease that affects about only 10 percent of the population, the brain continues to function well into old age. While short-term memory shows noticeable decline with age, long-term memory appears to decline very little. Once information is securely placed in the memory bank, it tends to stay there. This equates to an increase in a valuable asset of our businesses: human capital. Older workers are more efficient, miss less work because of illness and show up on time more often than younger workers.

All people need to be treated uniformly with respect and dignity. This philosophy does not mean that the different ages are treated the same. Recognize the differences, address the myths and stereotypes, and make the adjustments in management necessary to take care of your associates’ needs so they will be motivated to take care of your customers.

More myths. Older workers are slow, less productive and not quality oriented. The National Council on Aging has found that 97 percent of employers with older workers think they’re “thorough and reliable.” Age was found to be less a determinant of performance than individual skills. Further, age was generally unrelated to creativity. Older workers quit more often, but research shows that in the areas of customer service, business ethics and work pace, Baby Boomers still outperform the younger generations. Older workers cost more to pay and insure. In some cases this is true however a survey showed that 90 percent of Fortune 400 bosses felt that the ROI of hiring mature workers was high. At the end of the day or considering the bottom line, aren’t we judged on return on investment of the resources deployed? Some studies show the most costly person to insure is a 30 year old with two dependents.

The implications are that accepting inaccurate myths and stereotypes can result in discrimination based on age. More vital than avoiding illegal practices is focusing on what can be done to design the highest value contribution of our aging workers and how to mesh the generations. If we do not create a culture of hiring seniors now, then Generation Y will be unaccustomed to hiring older people and that will be passed down to Generation Z. So what can be done?

Train managers to avoid age stereotypes by including information about positive characteristics of older workers. Keep your focus on job-relevant factors when making employment decisions. Take advantage of “crystallized intelligence,” defined as broad educational or accumulated knowledge otherwise known as “wisdom.” Spend less time trying to train on technical skills and more time helping older workers facilitate the performance of younger colleagues. Training that is less time-intensive may be more effective for older workers. A policy that enables a wellness lifestyle can slow the effects of aging and may even slow the aging process itself.
As a practical matter, an important management objective is to foster a sense of balance between a devotion to work and personal fulfillment outside the office. Understand the differences in allowing workers time off. For younger workers this benefit can be related to activities with their children while older workers may welcome time to visit friends and family who have moved long distances. Flexible corporate policies that allow a choice of menu items that support one’s lifestyle will result in higher worker satisfaction and translate to better contributions at work.

Another key objective is to maximize the learning opportunities that lead to selfenrichment and enhanced career satisfaction. Understanding the commonalities among the generations will create a synergy, which leads to individual job satisfaction and ultimately decreasing turnover at all age levels. Establishing formal and informal mentoring programs will advance a key management objective. When individuals from different generations are teamed together, you, the manager, should get together with them and open dialogue relating to the strengths each person brings to the table and how each individual is better because of what the other can offer. Recognizing that if we all change a little, all become more tolerant of each other and appreciate the value each team member offers. This will go a long way to improve team synergy and the ability to achieve great things according to Dale Mask, a corporate training consultant.

Kegan points out that the first issue any transformation would have to address is this question: What does the person have to manage psychologically? The answer is: himself or herself. How can your corporate culture be adjusted or enhanced to assist and enable this self-psychological management? Start by increasing awareness of the aging of workers and the training of all employees about the challenges of age-related issues. This will help the older workers now and, later, those younger workers who are destined to become the organization’s future mentors. We will all benefit by using knowledge that will enhance the well-being and success of our associates, whatever their age, along with your organization and your world.

The old quality adage in the uniform business is that “uniforms need to be uniform.” One would hope. And for sure, all people need to be treated uniformly with respect and dignity. This philosophy does not mean that the different ages are treated the same. Recognize the differences, address the myths and stereotypes, and make the adjustments in management necessary to take care of your associates’ needs so they will be motivated to take care of your customers! Age old wisdom has not changed.

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