Executive Summary: Within two years 25% of the workforce will be aged 55 or older. Unless we accept the fact that older workers have something to contribute, we will see the skill shortage, already upon us, widen and our place as the dominant economy vanish.
When I set out to write this article, I planned to discuss workers over the age of 65. Then I had a phone call with my daughter (age 44) who told me she was concerned about changing careers “at her age”. It should be noted that she is not among the marginally employed. She founded and continues to grow a successful woman’s healthcare company, recently earned a doctorate and is an honors graduate of two prestigious universities. If she is concerned, what hope is there for the rest of us “mere mortals”.
While the issue of an aging workforce is problematic for individual employees, those older people looking for work and companies, it is a near crisis for the country. As of today, there are 6.6 million open positions in the US, more than the total number of unemployed, which stands at just over six million. While this mismatch is not the subject of this article, it should be noted that even if we could waive a “magic wand” and put every unemployed person to work, we would still have about half a million open positions in the US.
With the above being the case, why is it that we continue to marginalize or even permanently push people out of the workforce as they age? Most of us have as much to offer as we ever had. True we may have lost a step in our ability to do physical labor but few, if any, professional and/or managerial positions require more than the ability to carry an iPad or Surface Book home.
I believe the answer is age discrimination. Just like race, female gender, handicap, religious. LBGTQIA and all other forms of discrimination, age discrimination is rooted in a lack of understanding, risk avoidance, unfounded prejudice (is prejudice ever “founded”?) and fear. And just like these other forms of discrimination we can no longer afford the “luxury” of age discrimination if we are to successfully compete on a global stage.
Much of what I say below applies equally to the above list, but since I am a straight, white, older male, who doesn’t count in any of those categories, I do not believe I have the requisite experiences to discuss the impact on our society/economy of these other forms of discrimination. I will also admit that I undoubtedly benefited from “white male privilege” over the years.
Please pardon the “wonky” discussion that follows. Believe me, it could have been much worse:
At last count (2017) there were approximately 1.4 billion people in China. Today 430 million are considered “middle class” with that number expected to increase to 780 million by the mid-2020’s. India’s population is approximately 1.35 billion. And while the middle-class figures are widely disparate there are at least 30 million people in the middle class, with estimates as high a 300 million. What is certain is this figure will grow very quickly by 2030.
It is a given that the definition of middle class in India or China is not that of the US in pure monetary terms, but that gap will close. America’s population is 325 million as of 2017. Of that number 50% are considered middle class and that number is shrinking. Similar statistics are easily obtainable for Gross Domestic Product and just about any other economic measure one would care to research. They do not make for a pretty picture.
What is clear is that with populations nearly four and a half times that of the US, it will not be long before we are no longer the worlds economic leader. Indeed, it is estimated that China will overtake the US by 2030, if not sooner, with India doing so by 2050. And yet we discriminate against older workers. This makes no sense.
One often hears the expression: “Sixty is the new forty”. While this may not actually be true, there are many elements of being sixty that make it better than being forty. For one, your children are grown and, hopefully, out of the house. Also, you and your spouse have finally sanded off all the sharp edges of your marriage. There is no requirement to be home in time for the dance recital or basketball game. These and other “settled issues” allow the older worker to be more focused. Why should we require that focus be on one’s golf handicap when it could be on growing the gross domestic product? Answer: discrimination.
It is time we began to understand more completely the aging process, get over our fears of aging, our innate prejudices and our risk avoidant behaviors and give the older worker his/her due. They are more experienced, seasoned, likely better educated, at least as hard working and focused as the rest of the working population. They can be terrific coaches and mentors which are underappreciated competencies of the highest order. To not utilize older workers to their fullest simply hastens the time when America is no longer number one. Personally, I hope I never live to see that day although with it coming within the next decade, I probably will.
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