Will older Americans save us?

Unless you have been living in exile, you know all about "The Great Resignation," a term coined by organizational psychologist and Texas A&M professor Anthony Klotz. It's the period beginning in 2021 when pandemic-shocked employees went into revolt: The number of Americans quitting their jobs exceeded pre-pandemic highs for a majority of the year, despite employers struggling to fill millions of open positions. For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), roughly 3 percent of all workers, or 4.3 million people, quit their jobs in December. This was a slight improvement over the previous month, but still problematic given that help wanted signs are still ubiquitous across the nation.

Meanwhile, thanks to cost-cutting and ageism, older workers were taking the beating they usually do during recessions. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, it's expected during a normal year that one out of eight older people will leave their jobs; that jumped to nearly one out of three by April 2020 and hovered around one in five for the remainder of the year. Furthermore, the report says, the "share of people ages 55 or older who left the workforce during the pandemic increased by a statistically significant 7.6 percentage points."

A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis pegged total pandemic retirements at 3 million—an excess of 1.5 million more than would be anticipated during a typical year. This has all happened despite the fact that there has only been a marginal uptick in Social Security claims. This means that older people may be calling their current reality "retirement," but they might just be sitting on the sidelines and waiting for the right moment to return to the workforce, especially those who are too young to collect Social Security benefits (you must be at least 62 to collect early, reduced benefits and typically 66 to 67, depending on the year you were born, to collect full benefits). One possible sign of the desire to keep working among older Americans: The Pew Research Center reckons that 20 percent of gig workers in the U.S.—from freelance consultants to Uber drivers—are over the age of 50, and nearly a third of those are over the age of 65.

Baby Boomers may be the key to the shortage of workersGrustock/stock.adobe.com

The bottom line: Today's employment picture looks a lot less like the pre-pandemic years and a lot more like those during the post-World War II period. In those days, America relied on older workers to fuel growth and, in 1950, nearly one out of two men over the age of 65 were in the formal labor market.

Can it happen again? Will employers dive in and embrace this massive labor pool?

They should. An AARP-funded report by The Economist Intelligence Unit (now Economist Impact), estimated that the U.S. economy missed out on adding an additional $850 billion to its GDP in 2018—"a figure the size of Pennsylvania's economy"—due to age discrimination and the exclusion of older people from the labor market.

Nothing will change, though, unless employers abandon hiring and firing practices that favor the young. A large number of companies, for instance, have an ageism problem. The AARP report found that nearly eight out of 10 older workers believed they witnessed or were a victim of this bias at work. This is further evidenced by long-term employment data that illustrates that it takes the older unemployed nearly twice as long as their younger peers to find work.

The good news: We already know that generational diversity improves corporate performance, so employers can get a lot of good out of creating an age-inclusive work environment. For example, a 2013 study of 147 German companies, which was reported in the Journal of Management, found higher employee productivity and retention rates, as well as higher profits and growth projections among businesses with a mix of employees of various ages.

In order to achieve this generational diversity, businesses will need to shift their strategies to compete for talent of all ages with better salaries and novel benefits, augment their workforce with technologies, support their workers' lives outside of the office, and focus on extending the working lives of all employees through ergonomics and inclusive design.

Employers can integrate all of these non-insurance benefits, but they won't mean much to older workers if age-related bias prevails in the hiring process. Hiring managers, in particular, must remove coded language like "recent college graduate," as well as the requisite number of years of experience from job postings. They also need to get out of the rut of assuming that an older worker is "overqualified," technologically illiterate or only going to stick around for a few years. According to CareerBuilder, over the course of their working lives, baby boomers spend 1.5 times longer in a job than Gen X, and around three times longer than millennials.

Policy makers have a role, too—and will need to adapt current social welfare programs to extend working lives, as well as provide allowances for lifelong learning. They should offer information and incentives that encourage employers to hire a diverse set of generations in the workplace.

Employers may not have a choice but to embrace changes when it comes to an older workforce. The labor force participation rate for people over the age of 75 is expected to grow by nearly 100 percent by 2030, according to the BLS. In contrast, the total workforce will only expand by about 5 percent, and the 16-24 age group will likely decline, thanks to decades of contracting birth rates.

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That may be a good thing. Research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that countries who give older people greater opportunities to work could raise their GDP by as much as 19 percent over the next three decades. So, the practice of excluding older people from the workforce no longer makes sense. It hampers operational efficiencies, negatively impacts the bottom line and threatens the health of the larger economy.

That's why we need older workers now more than ever.

Bradley Schurman is a demographic futurist and expert on longevity and author of The Super Age: Decoding our Demographic Destiny (HarperCollins). He's the founder and CEO of The Super Age, a global research and advisory firm, as well as co-founder and president of KIBA, an inclusive design company focusing on improving the built environment.