July 28, 2008

Work Landscape Undergoes Change

By Jennifer Rich, The Bradenton Herald, Fla.

Jul. 28--How will the complexion of businesses change in the future if older workers stay at their desks?

Will there be more cases of age discrimination or will employers and societal views of aging people experience a metamorphosis?

"The challenge of employers today as this huge generation reaches retirement is how to keep older workers and in what capacity," said Scott Parkin, with the National Council on Aging. "Understanding the trend, will they still value the knowledge and skill of the older worker and want to keep them in some capacity?"

Parkin points to CVS Pharmacy as a "very forward-thinking" company that has developed a snowbird program that allows older workers to relocate their jobs during the year as they move north and south for the seasons.

But he admits that many companies don't have a plan on how they will deal with the rush of aging baby boomers.

"Employers need to be thinking about . . . boomers still feeling relatively young and still able to work and not look at them cross-eyed," he said. "You have to weigh the value of experience and knowledge and sometimes it become an economic decision, unfortunately."

Mature worker groups are springing up across the United States, promoting the benefits to employers of retaining older employees.

There are a lot of myths about the older worker, says Kathy Black, a University of South Florida associate professor who specializes in geriatrics.

"They say the older worker is more expensive, but it is the younger workers with families that cost employers more in benefits," she said.

She doesn't think employers have fully considered the ramifications of this aging demographic. "We keep trying to have these discussions, and things like the war and other issues keep pushing it back."

The gap between educational backgrounds of older and younger workers has shrunk, according to a recent study by the National Council on Aging. In 1997, 21 percent of older workers had less than a high school education compared with only 10 percent of those younger. But by 2007, older workers with less than a high school education dropped to just 13 percent, compared with 9 percent for younger workers.

Many older than 65 disagree with companies that continue with mandatory retirement age policies.

"I think the whole structure should change," said Ed Bavaria, who is 75 and still working. "When Social Security began, 65 was quite old, and people were lucky if they lived to their 70s. I think the whole system should be moved up five years."

John Rawlings, in his 70s and still working at his bookkeeping and tax services business in Bradenton, thinks mandatory retirement is ridiculous.

"I think it's an insult," he said. "If you are still capable and doing well, then you should not be castigated."

Mary Helen Kress, who is also in her mid 70s and president of the Suncoast Workforce Board, says businesses are losing talented, skilled workers when they set age restrictions.

"It depends on the individual. I've seen people retired on the job who are no longer useful and others who are very involved in their work," she said.

Kress officially retired in 1987 from her state job in Tallahassee, managing job service offices, to take her current position. Now when a new board chair comes into office every two years, they ask her to stay at least through their tenure.

"I've been here almost 22 years," she said. "I've told them I'll give them six months notice, but I'm not ready to do that yet."

And her agency just hired a 66-year-old for its senior employment program.


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