When I started in human resources, the notion of working towards retirement was powerful— very powerful. I can’t remember all the times I heard employees of all levels, from 60-plus all the way down to 20-something muse about their eventual “golden years.” There were houses, trips, volunteer work, time with the family, time alone—the wish lists went on and on. In 1985, around there were about three million people in the workforce over 65. Today that number has tripled.
It’s clear today’s workers have very different expectations and end goals as in previous generations. While the average American retires at age 62, the current 50-year-old in the workforce today is aiming for 67, a full five years later than the current trend. And 27% say they’ll “keep working as long as possible.” With average life expectancies up, that shouldn’t surprise anyone—longer lives means a need for increased retirement savings, healthcare coverage, and other costs of living. And those five extra years can make a huge difference when it comes to retirement contributions.
While many pre-retirees stay in the workforce for practical reasons like these, others continue working simply because they enjoy it. Thirty-six percent of 65-plus workers say they “want to stay involved” in the working world—and, so, they do. Many work in highly specialized fields or roles which, in many cases, have come from decades of training and personal development which keeps these high levels in the workforce. Explains Bloomberg, “People with college and graduate degrees tend to work later than those with less schooling,” citing that “since 1985, the share of older Americans with college degrees has tripled, to about a third of 60- to 74-year-olds.”
This paired with 30, 40 or even 50 years of industry experience makes them incredibly adept and incredibly valuable. With this unparalleled experience comes tacit knowledge that a newcomer can’t replicate. I’ve often heard colleagues say of long-time employees, “they know where the bodies are buried.” And it’s true—if not a bit morbid. Long-standing workers can reach back into their wealth of know-how and historical observations and deliver powerful recommendations, insights and visions. It’s something that, no matter how hard you try, will ever emerge from even the most in-depth reporting and analysis. It’s the old, “you just had to be there,” of the workforce.
An Aging Workforce vs. Innovation
As someone who comes from the tech and innovation space, I see this all the time—cutting-edge companies who put a serious premium on youth. I get it—the millennial generation is the It Generation right now, coming to the table with more understanding of this space than we’ve ever seen before. It makes sense—they grew up with it! They’ve barely known a smartphone-free world let alone life without the Internet. This is their language—one they’re continually growing, evolving and expanding. Hiring a talented 20-something with serious tech skills is, basically, the Holy Grail of our industry, and companies are constantly battling for their time and talent.
But that doesn’t mean anyone over 35 should take a back seat. Writes Ann Brenoff in The Huffington Post, “Old people. Nobody wants to hire us,” citing that Silicon Valley’s push for diversity in the workplace doesn’t include people with graying hair. People in their 50s and 60s, she writes, “are seen as old. They send resumes into jobs and just never hear back,” especially in the tech industry. And when a Baby Boomer is hired, “it’s because they’re an industry rock star,” she writes, going on to quote Medium’s Steven Levy: “It is someone whose accomplishments are pretty well-known, a person who, when the hiring is announced, generates giddy chatter in the Slack channel. Wow, we hired…X??!??).”
Elevating & Integrating The Boomers
And these aren’t exceptions — more and more the value Boomers bring to the workforce is powerful if it’s harnessed properly. There are, of course, the obvious and very tangible benefits — they work they produce, the innovation they drive, the leadership skills they bring to the table. But there’s also the more unique applications that only these seasoned pros can provide — think coaching, mentoring and driving more diversity in terms of thought and action. Even simple knowledge transfer can help drive meaningful evolution today and tomorrow.
Through that lens, it’s more clear than innovation and age don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And, beyond that, it’s becoming more of a mandate to maintain a successful multi-generational workforce by better assessing, integrating and elevating Boomers’ talents and commitment — even in Silicon Valley.
That shouldn’t shock anyone either because, after all, technology is meant to be the great equalizer. And that goes hand in hand with a push for more diverse backgrounds, thoughts and experiences in our workforces. It’s our role, then, as HR leaders and decision-makers to create multi-generational workplaces that support, engage and inspire employees of all ages to grow and thrive. We can’t discount the contributions and unique perspectives of the 55-plus crowd any more than we can the millennial thought leaders—all keep the industry moving forward and all will still be workplace pillars in 10 and even 20 years. Focusing on diverse training and support, leadership opportunities and other employee-driven benefits, products and perks will ensure a more satisfied, more productive and more innovative workforce—a workforce that spans generations.