Ageism is a topic we talk about a lot, largely because NETSHARE and Executive Update are aimed at senior executives; those professionals who have earned their credentials and are senior managers because of their experience. A common problem our members experience is they are considered too old for the job. This is a particular issue for senior executives who have to report to younger bosses – no one wants their mom or dad to work for them.
I was gratified to see an industry expert say that by forcing older executives out of the workforce, we are throwing away a valuable resource. In a recent article in CNN Money by Fortune Managing Editor Dan Roth, he quoted Hans-Paul Bürkner, CEO of Boston Consulting Group (BCG), speaking at the World Economic Forum Davos in 2010:
"We have to give people a chance in their 60s and early 70s to continue to work," he said. "We have to have different opportunities for them to expand their talents and to make the best use of their talents." As populations age in places like Europe and Japan -- a country that boasts the highest percentage of elderly in the world -- society turns top heavy, with young workers supporting the masses of retirees. Of course, economists have been warning of this for decades. Now Bürkner, who is 58, says it's time for companies to take it upon themselves to craft a solution -- and to do so for their own self interest.
According to Bürkner, when companies are hard-pressed to create new jobs, it seems foolish to phase out older employees with valuable experience and insights to retirement or to make way for younger employees. BCG studies this closely calling it “demographic risk management,” i.e. identifying holes that can open up in employee staffing in the coming months and developing strategies to fill those holes. He argues that when aging workers leave, they take with them valuable information that cannot be replaced, partly because today’s schools are not preparing students for those jobs that are being cut. As part of demographic risk management, you have to understand how staffing decisions could create gaps in corporate knowledge.
Bürkner has an interesting suggestion. Don’t force older workers to retire, but provide a “gliding path” to retirement. Instead of letting older workers go or forcing them to retire to make way for younger workers, why not let them migrate into training roles? Instead of forcing them out of work, why not adjust their hours to allow them to still contribute to the company and transfer their knowledge? As Bürkner says, Rather than saying this is the path you can go -- you are in a box and the box moves this way -- you need different paths."
Of course, this kind of shift requires a whole new way of thinking, not just on the part of management but also for the workforce. We need to change our thinking about retirement, either looking at retirement as the brass ring at the end of a life of toil, or looking at forced retirement as a penalty when you still have a lot to offer. The real objective should be giving everyone a chance to contribute in the manner they wish. It’s a matter of making sure that workers have the right role for their skills and desires, rather than forcing out older workers in favor of a new batch. There needs to be room for all.
This kind of sea change won’t happen overnight, but it would address a number of problems, including the ongoing need for companies to hire experienced talent, and the challenges facing retirees as their savings dwindle in an economic slump. Let’s stop putting the most experienced workers on the bench and instead, keep them in the game so we all come out winners.