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An Ode to the Older Worker

My mom is 72-years-old and still waiting tables at a local restaurant. My dad is 76-years-old and still puts in a few hours every day at the family’s bait and tackle store. Both plan to work until they are physically and/or mentally incapable of doing so. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, my parents are among the more than 6.9 million people aged 65 and older who are still working and, by every indication, don’t plan to quit any time soon. Indeed, seventy-four percent of the respondents to a 2011 survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute indicated they plan to continue to work after they “officially” retire. In light of this situation, what follows are some things employers should know about employing older workers.

You can’t fire them or refuse to hire them just because they’re older. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act make it illegal for employers to make employment decisions (such as hiring and firing) about applicants and employees aged 40 and older because of their age. However, according to Alicia H. Munnell, professor of management sciences at Boston College and director of the college’s Center for Retirement Research, “Study after study has shown that older workers take a much longer time than their younger counterparts to find a new job.” In general, employers tend to prefer to hire younger applicants. According to Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School, “Experiments have shown that even when credentials are absolutely identical, employers much prefer the younger candidates.” Cappelli goes on to say, “There are no good reasons for this overall preference. Older workers perform better across the range of relevant performance indicators – better skills, especially interpersonal skills, better attendance, more conscientious, and so on,” which leads us to our next point:

They often are better workers than their younger counterparts. Kevin Dent is CEO of Dentco, an exterior services management firm in Michigan. Of his 65 employees, 23 are part-time quality services inspectors whose ages range from mid-50s to mid-80s. Employing older workers has “worked miraculously well,” says Denton. “I feel there’s a whole different work ethic with senior citizens. They know how to handle people at the sites, make great ambassadors and have empathy and discipline.” Anne Pinter, senior vice president for the New England-Upstate New York region for Atria Senior Living, echoes the sentiment. “We run 24/7 care for frail seniors,” says Pinter. “We’ve got to have committed, reliable workers, and we haven’t always been able to find that with younger workers who sometimes may not just show up for work. We need those who can grasp the purpose of what we’re trying to do.” Pinter goes on to say that, “Our seniors say that they love connecting with older workers because they’re often about the same age as their own children. They can find it a little difficult to initiate a conversation with a 20-year-old.”

They can be managed by younger workers. According to Cappelli, “The real reason employers seem to prefer younger candidates has to do with the perceptions of supervisors who often worry about how to manage older subordinates.” If that’s the case, a little education and training is all that’s needed. In her article “7 Tips for Hiring Older Workers,” Kay McFadden says that, “For the person who’ll be supervising, it’s important to help him or her get past the psychological hump of managing an older subordinate – i.e., the dreaded confrontation with Mom or Dad.” Additionally, younger supervisors should know that older employees also perform best when consulted and empowered.

The fact that people are older should not prevent employers from hiring them as workers. As baseball legend Satchel Paige said, “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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