N.H.’s Changing Workforce: ‘Myths’ remain a challenge for older workers

If the economic meltdown of recent years has been hard on American workers in general, it’s been downright brutal on older workers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployed workers aged 55 and over stayed unemployed an average 35.9 weeks in January 2010. That’s compared with 29.8 weeks for 25-to-54-year-olds.

And here’s another sobering number: A recent AARP analysis found the number of unemployed workers aged 55-plus soared an astounding 331 percent over the last decade.

This comes at a time when many older workers expect and want to continue working past traditional retirement age, either because of financial uncertainty or to remain active and engaged.

But as older workers try to beat the unemployment odds, they are up against some familiar misconceptions, according to Deborah Russell, director of workforce issues for AARP in Washington, D.C.

“We continue to hear from employers the concerns and perceptions they have about the capability of older workers when it comes to technology, when it comes to flexibility, when it comes to resisting being managed by someone younger, resisting new training opportunities,” said Russell. “In this economy, those myths become even that much more of a challenge.”

The good news, Russell said, is that many employers distinguish among workers in their 50s and 60s and workers who are 70 years old and older.

“Certainly we have people in their 50s who are very well adapted to utilizing technology, who continue to take ongoing training, who want flexibility, who have had experience being managed by younger managers and vice versa,” Russell said.

In fact, research suggests that technology is increasingly an integral part of older people’s lives: the fastest-growing group of Facebook users is women over 55; one of the largest growing consumer groups using the Internet is people over the age of 50.

Another myth, according to Russell, is that older workers automatically command higher salaries.

“The reality is you’re going to pay whatever the job is willing to pay,” she said. “You may negotiate up and down a little here and there based on one’s experience, and presumably — presumably, we don’t even know that for sure — someone who is older may negotiate a higher salary assuming that they’ve had many years of experience and you’re willing to pay for that experience. But you’re not going to go above a set range that has already been decided upon.”

And nowadays, given the fierce competition for available jobs, the older worker may well refrain from pursuing the upper end of the salary range.

Unavoidable realities

Another “myth” as listed in “The Business Case for Workers Age 50+,” a report commissioned by AARP, is that older workers are “inflexible and uncreative.”

In fact, employers have found that older workers can offer the kind of creativity that is based on experience, Russell said.

“We could all agree that what happened with the pilot who landed the plane in the Hudson is that we were all very thankful that he had some experience on him,” Russell said.

Hence, the benefits of multigenerational teams of workers — now a practice in such companies as Campbell Soup Company, Russell said.

“They recognize the benefit of having two forms of innovation,” she said. “There’s value in combining both of those.”

That scenario also may point to future unavoidable realities, as fewer older people are willing to leave their jobs and as demographic shifts suggest that by 2012 nearly one in three workers will be 50.

Businesses in New Hampshire may well be leaders when it comes to dealing with older workers. “New Hampshire is one of the fastest-aging states, at number five,” said Jamie Bulen, of AARP NH.

AARP encourages businesses to use its workforce assessment tool — to evaluate, for instance, how age groups are distributed. If a company’s entire research and development department is on the older end, it may not want to encourage early retirement.

“So it’s shining the spotlight on what is ongoing with your workforce, so you can put policies and procedures in place before you’re up against a wall,” Bulen said.

In fact, a company may want to find ways to help older workers stay on — by offering flexible work hours, part-time work and consulting arrangements.

There also are ergonomic changes that can help the older worker — hospitals are increasingly considering such changes as the nation’s nursing force ages, according to Russell.

As for now, one of the biggest roadblocks for employers when it comes to older workers is health-care costs, acknowledged Russell. As AARP-commissioned research has determined, workers aged 50 to 65 use on average from 1.4 to 2.2 times as much health care as workers in their 30s and 40s.

But behavior is also increasingly recognized as a factor in health-care costs, Russell said. “Some employers are going so far as to say that they’re looking at things like, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t hire people that are obese; maybe we shouldn’t hire people that are smokers,’” she said.

And some 50-year-olds are in better shape than some 30-year-olds, she suggested.

Meanwhile, the current health-care debate also could have an affect on this roadblock — particularly if it does, as promised, help make insurance more affordable.

N.H.’s Changing Workforce series is a collaboration between NHBR and AARP New Hampshire.