Looking for Workers in all the Wrong Places

In this upside-down world of increased longevity, a pandemic-shocked economy and labor in short supply, employers and workers are wondering how to move forward. Little has prepared us for this moment of massive change. Many older adults want to, and need to, continue working past conventional retirement ages, but are fearful of stepping out of the cocoon that protected them from COVID-19.

According to a report based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers older than age 55 accounted for 89% of the increase in the number of people who are out of the labor force, but indicate that they do not want a job, or are “no longer looking,” said labor economist Aaron Sojourner recently.

In addition, lots of women have been unable to go back to work due to school closings and a lack of consistent childcare. Workers in general, recognizing a buyer’s market, have been reluctant to return to low-paying jobs, which are high in demands and low in benefits. Newspapers report that workers are doing some deep thinking about what they want out of work.

We might ask, then: how might employers benefit from attracting workers in the older-than-55 age group? What might make this group rethink joining the workforce?

Before the pandemic, employers were beginning to recognize the trend toward later retirement ages. In one survey, 41% of employers reported knowing about the trend toward later retirement, and recognizing that their employees were not running for the exit door. Yet, in the same survey, few employers were making efforts to add or expand age-related human resource practices that might make it easier for older workers to stay.

‘Few employers were making efforts to add or expand age-related human resource practices.’

Instead, barriers to employment for older workers persist, especially for those who became displaced. We learned that once out of work, whether through restructuring or downsizing, it took older workers much longer to find a new job compared to their younger counterparts. We saw perceptions of age discrimination, along with actual lawsuits increase. Older workers were included among a long list of so-called “hidden workers,” or those typically unseen by employers, in a recent Accenture report. Advocates began to recognize the few employers who were considered to be “age-friendly.”

What Are Employers to Do?

There is no shortage of recommendations for employers wanting to adapt to this changing world. We know more about what older adults want and need from employers than we do about the impact of those practices. In some studies, for example, an overt focus on age-friendliness creates a stigma for older adults. More research is needed to determine the business outcomes of different policies and practices. In the meantime, on the basis of what we know, employers trying to fill a labor shortage might consider these actions:

  1. Revisit job descriptions. Take a critical look at the job description to make sure that all the requirements are needed to fill the position. Too often, employers just repost the old description even though many aspects of the job have changed. Few job applicants will have all the core requirements. Make sure the core requirements are truly required.
  2. Provide better jobs. The Boston College Center on Aging & Work has proposed eight elements of job quality that contribute to employee satisfaction and engagement. These include being clear that you provide fair compensation and benefits, some level of job security and an inclusive work environment. Broadcast the mission of the organization and what it contributes to society. Older workers want to feel that their jobs are meaningful.
  3. Publicize the availability of fair and consistent flexible work arrangements (FWAs). Workers of all ages have been saying for decades that FWAs make it possible for them to be more fully engaged in work and in their lives outside of work. One impact study found that providing such options decreased early retirement intentions. News reports indicate that the pandemic has caused workers to expect such options. Employers and employees have learned how well remote work (in particular) can maintain productivity. The time for FWA lip service appears to be over; employees want such arrangements, and we now know they are also positive for business outcomes such as employee satisfaction and engagement, not to mention the possibility of extending working lives.
  4. Broaden the search. A recent report by Accenture suggests eliminating the use of hiring technologies that winnow the field and use systems that do not dismiss applicants with a gap in work experience or those who are over a certain age. There are plenty of candidates with the experience and the skills to do a good job who get overlooked due to outdated hiring processes and structures.
  5. Provide training and development opportunities. It is a myth that older workers are not interested in learning. New technologies are changing the way work is done more quickly than most employees (of any age) can keep up, especially for those who might have been displaced. Make sure the training is applicable to the job. Consider different learning styles when developing programs. Several options seem to work well, particularly with older adults, including mixed-methods training techniques such as mentoring, networking and mixed-age training experiences. Give employees a chance to try out what they are learning.
  6. Get comfortable with trial and error. These are recommendations to try in these challenging times. They suggest new ways to engage those workers who may have given up a search they considered to be futile. The success of all these recommendations, however, depends upon the organization, its culture and mission and the kind of work produced, not to mention other differences such as the country and region of the organization. Success also depends upon assessment—meaning intraorganizational tests/surveys/interviews to find out how well they are working—with the intent to revise and retry. If the organization does not have such measures, there are publicly available examples that can be used as a whole or in part. (See, for example, the Later Life Work Index or the Boston College Center on Aging & Work/AARP Workforce Benchmarking Tool.)

Success may also mean taking a stand—making a commitment to embrace older workers who are skilled, motivated and eager to work. Such a stand takes courage as there are many barriers to doing so—old tropes and stereotypes, concerns about lawsuits and the expense of hiring experienced workers. Some employers are getting past these old ideas and finding value and merit, not to mention a new source of high-quality workers, in this under-utilized valuable asset.

Jacquelyn B. James, PhD, FGSA, is director of the Sloan Research Network on Aging & Work and research professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.