Older, Wiser

Intolerance of ageism should be the hot corporate cause of 2018, says Barbara Beck

In 2018 the baby-boomer generation, born between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s, will be reaching retirement age on a grand scale. In America most of the boomers are already over 60, and even the younger ones are getting to an age when they are making plans for bowing out of work.

The boomers are the most successful, most confident and most individualistic generation that ever set foot on Earth. As a group, they are also about to become the longest-lived. In rich countries, life expectancy has been rising by a couple of years a decade throughout most of the 20th and 21st centuries. Across the OECD, someone who is now 65 can look forward to another 20 years of life on average. With birth rates in most rich countries falling, the share of over-65s in the total population across the OECD is already 16%, and is due to rise to 25% by mid-century. 

But although many of the boomers have enjoyed enviable lives, they are now running into a collective problem: many employers no longer want them. In a world focused on youth, older workers are often snubbed. In America, the AARP (a 37m-strong club for the over-50s) says that nearly two-thirds of its members have experienced or witnessed age discrimination. 

As a group, the boomers are financially comfortable. In America the over-50s account for over 40% of all after-tax income. Many of them can look forward to, or are already enjoying, pensions far more generous than their children can expect. But not all of them are well off, and some will need to go on working to make ends meet. Many will also want to carry on because they actually enjoy work. Surveys of retired people in both Europe and America suggest that about half of them would like to be in a job, though not necessarily a full-time one. 

They may not get the chance. Employers tend to shun older workers because they consider them physically and mentally less vigorous, less good at working with new technology and more set in their ways. To prove them wrong, boomers can resort to setting themselves up as self-employed consultants, but they may not get as much work as they would like. And many give up on paid jobs altogether and work in the voluntary sector instead.

It is true that an older person will bring less physical strength to a job than a younger one, and may also be slower. But often employers are just biased. Physical decline may be counteracted by technology, and slower reactions are frequently outweighed by knowledge and experience. Seasoned workers have skills that employers are finding hard to replace; in Germany, for example, companies are going out of their way to retain and recruit older engineers. Older workers are in many cases more conscientious than younger ones, and research shows they do particularly well as part of mixed-age teams. 

So what can be done to avoid wasting older workers’ potential? Since age discrimination is based on prejudice rather than rational argument, it needs to be fought on many fronts. Outlawing it is a good start, just as it was with discrimination on grounds of race or sex, and many countries already have a legal framework in place. It is not enough on its own, but it sets the tone. Another signal is gradually raising the minimum age for drawing the state pension, which many countries are already doing. 

You should still need me when I’m 64

But the biggest need is for a change in attitudes. Being more careful with language would help (talk of a “grey tsunami”, for instance, makes older people sound like a problem, not a solution). So would a more enlightened approach to training. Employers often pass over older employees for courses because they think the effort would be wasted. But if older workers do not update their skills, they will perform less well and the prejudice will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is now widely accepted that training and education need to be a lifelong endeavour, not a one-time sprint at the beginning of a career. Harvard and Stanford universities have recently introduced one-year programmes to prepare high-flyers over 50 for a career change late in life.

Most importantly, there needs to be give and take on both sides. People working past the age of retirement typically want more flexibility: perhaps shorter hours, or more control over when and where to work. But in return they also need to ditch their expectations of ever-rising pay and seniority, and learn to take orders from younger people. Many boomers may struggle with that.

In many walks of life older folk are already trusted to do a fine job. Warren Buffett and George Soros, both 88 in 2018, are widely acknowledged to be good with money. For rock musicians like the Rolling Stones, being septuagenarians has proved no hindrance. The average age of FTSE 100 CEOs is 54. Are they old enough?

 Barbara Beck: special-reports editor, The Economist