Out in the Cold

Posted Wednesday, October 30th, 2013  | Comments (4) rule
Why there are still millions of unemployed older workers, and what the U.S. should do about that
Carl E. Van Horn' s photo
Carl E. Van Horn, PhD
Professor of Public Policy, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
Director, John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Research Fellow, Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Email: vanhorn@rutgers.edu

Being unemployed is frustrating, demeaning, and…frightening. Articles in the paper say we “baby boomers” will have to work for a few more years, especially since so many of us have lost half if not more in retirement “funds.” Now, you tell me, how can I work for a few more years if I can’t even get a job interview?
— Older unemployed worker quoted in Working Scared (Or Not At All): The Lost Decade, Great Recession, and Restoring the Shattered American Dream (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013).

During and after the Great Recession, millions of older unemployed workers struggled to regain a toehold in the labor market. A staggering percentage of the unemployed over age 50 (estimated on the basis of a nationally representative sample tracked from 2009 to 2011 by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development) were jobless for a long time. In 2011, we re-interviewed workers who lost their job during the depth of the recession in 2009: 80 percent had been searching for more than a year, and almost half had been jobless for more than two years.

Today, more than 2 million older Americans who would work if they could are jobless. Extensive national surveys of older displaced workers provide overwhelming evidence that the vast majority are unemployed for two reasons: workforce demand overall is depressed and employers typically seek younger workers. Extensive national surveys of older displaced workers, including recent research featured in The Atlantic, makes it clear that the stigma of long-term unemployment suffered by older Americans is killing their prospects for reemployment.

Older workers’ long-term unemployment experience is not due to their lack of effort to find another job. In fact, the vast majority of those interviewed by the Heldrich Center for its “Work Trends” surveys diligently sought work, by scouring ads and online job postings and by contacting friends, family, and potential employers.

Nor did these older Americans remain jobless because they refused to work for less money. Two out of three unemployed respondents told Heldrich Center researchers that they would accept a pay cut to land a position. “Work Trends” surveys revealed that six in ten reemployed older workers earned less than they had previously, and 14 percent earned less than half as much.

The especially bleak job prospects for older workers in a generally poor labor market are the by-product of employers’ perceptions about mature workers. Too many employers assume that older workers are more expensive, less productive, and less flexible than younger employees. Employers fret that older workers’ skills have atrophied during months and years of unemployment. Employers may also be reluctant to hire workers who have less than a decade remaining in their careers. Gary Burtless, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, found scant evidence that an aging workforce has hurt U.S. productivity. Even so, employers’ negative views about older workers linger.

Thousands of older workers realize that in order to land another job they need additional education and training. Yet, Heldrich Center research found that few have been able to do so. According to the Center’s surveys, only 14 percent of unemployed workers were enrolled in programs to upgrade their skills and less than 38 percent got financial help to participate in such programs from government sources.

Contemporary workforce development policies are not well-suited to the needs of the long-term unemployed, according to reports by the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning. This is especially true for older workers, who may be able to get another job only after extensive retraining. Unfortunately, the federal government’s principal strategies for assisting unemployed workers consist of partial income replacement through unemployment insurance, job placement services, or short-term training programs.

Many policy makers are ignoring older unemployed Americans. Others blame them, discounting the prodigious efforts most make to find jobs. It’s time for policy makers to redesign and fund the workforce and education programs that older unemployed people desperately need so they can return to work.

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How Managers View Workplace Flexibility

Posted Wednesday, October 16th, 2013  | Comments Off on How Managers View Workplace Flexibility rule
Their attitudes matter, because what they see is what employees (and companies) get
Sweet's photo Stephen Sweet, PhD
Associate Professor of Sociology
Ithaca College
Research Fellow
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Email: ssweet@ithaca.edu
James' photo Jacquelyn B. James, PhD
Co-Director of Research
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Email: jamesjc@bc.edu

Research has shown that flexible work options enhance employee effectiveness. And yet, like good jobs in general, access to these options is limited and inconsistent.

Managers are almost always the gatekeepers of flexible work options. They can (and commonly do) ignore policies that discourage or even prohibit flexible work options, by providing those they supervise with informal access. They also can (and commonly do) restrict or penalize access in both implicit and explicit ways, putting flexible work options that are on the books out of employees’ reach.

Given this locus of power, it’s worth investigating what managers really think about flexibility and how firmly they hold their opinions. To find out, in June 2012 we surveyed 1,093 managers who work for a large employer in the finance and insurance super-sector—a quarter of that company’s managerial staff. The respondents were not only familiar with the survey topic but also had some experience with it in practice. Of course, the attitudes toward flexibility that we uncovered are not necessarily those of managers in other industries or organizations. Nonetheless, the responses to the questions we posed offer at least a glimpse of what managers in general think about workplace flexibility.

Measures of the range and strength of managers’ attitudes

We considered managers’ attitudes toward two types of flexibility: schedule flexibility (when employees work, such as being able to work earlier or later in the day, in compressed workweeks, or on some other schedule) and place flexibility (where people work, such as in a home office or off-site).

Figure 1 captures the range of managers’ attitudes toward three commonly suggested benefits of flexible work:

  • Increases motivation
  • Improves concentration
  • Increases productivity

As the figure shows, managers tend to view both schedule and place flexible work options as beneficial. They are quite confident that these two types of flexibility enhance workers’ sense of motivation. In contrast, they are somewhat less confident that productivity and concentration improve.

To test the strength of the attitudes suggested by these responses, we turned our questions around and asked about the consequences of flexible work options from the negative standpoint of business risk. We wondered if, in this context, managers’ attitudes toward workplace flexibility would appear less favorable. Figure 2 captures managers’ attitudes toward five possible negative consequences of workplace flexibility:

  • Makes managing employees more difficult
  • Decreases organizational commitment
  • Leads to isolation
  • Decreases cooperation
  • Decreases opportunities for employees to learn from one another (that is, mutual learning)

Here agreement indicates doubt that flexible work options are good for business.

Asking the questions this way revealed a marked, and previously unseen, difference in the way managers view schedule flexibility in comparison with place flexibility. Schedule flexibility does not worry them, but they see place flexibility as somewhat more risky in general, particularly with regard to opportunities for mutual learning among employees. Notwithstanding this skepticism, most managers were neutral or disagreed that negative outcomes (other than barriers to mutual learning) were likely with either type of flexibility.

What employers can do to achieve consistent access to flexibility

Our analysis of the survey results also showed that attitudes toward the two types of flexibility go hand in hand. Where managerial attitudes are positive, this is good news, because combining the two options is the best bet for work/life fit for many employees. For example, an employee who wants to start work later than usual on some days might also want to work at home once or twice a week. A manager who is open to either option is very likely to view both options favorably. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. A manager who distrusts either option is also likely to distrust and close the door on both.

Our study suggests two tasks for employers who want to offer flexible work options consistently. They can support managers whose attitudes toward these options are favorable, by explaining clearly how workplace flexibility may benefit the organization. They can also convert skeptical managers, by presenting concrete evidence of workplace flexibility’s successes.

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Investing in an Aging Workforce: Universal Design and Health Promotion Can Pay off in Productivity Gains

Posted Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013  | Comments (1) rule

Kenneth Scott' s photo
Kenneth Scott
Outreach Director, Mountain & Plains Education and Research Center,
Colorado School of Public Health

Research Fellow, Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Email: kenneth.scott@ucdenver.edu

We all know—perhaps too well—that biology matters. As we age, our vision and balance deteriorate. We have “senior moments.” You’d think that the changes that most of us experience as we age would have a negative impact on our productivity. To the contrary, research published this spring showed that workers between the ages of 60 and 74 are, in fact, more productive, on average, than their younger counterparts.

How can this be? Furthermore, if age-related physiological changes don’t necessarily lower overall productivity, should employers adapt to changing workforce demographics by designing “age-friendly” workplaces?

In 2007, a major automaker conducted a unique experiment. Their results suggest that adapting workplaces to complement mature workers’ physical abilities can have real bottom-line benefits.

Recognizing the speed at which BMW’s workforce was aging, managers and engineers at a plant in Germany staffed one of the production lines so that the average age of the workers on that line equaled the BMW workforce’s projected average age in 2017. Modifications in the production process—suggested by the workers themselves and costing less than $50,000 to implement—resulted in a boost in productivity. The solutions were simple design changes, such as better lighting, adjustable magnifying glasses, computer displays with adjustable font sizes and forgiving flooring material. These, in turn, optimized the true potential of the autoworkers’ skills and experience. BMW’s design solutions could be considered “universal design” solutions, because they met the needs of a wide range of physical abilities. Better lighting is likely to improve productivity for older and younger workers alike.

The BMW experiment is consistent with other research indicating that older workers’ skills and experience can be more than enough to compensate for many age-related physiological changes.

What about other costs related to employee health and physical abilities?

From as far back as 1977, relatively clear patterns appear in the data on occupational injuries—the primary driver of an employer’s workers-compensation insurance costs.

Frequency of injuries: On the whole, the frequency of occupational injuries neither increases nor decreases over employees’ working lives. Some types of work-related injuries, though, including slips, trips and falls, tend to occur more frequently with increasing age—suggesting opportunities for saving on workers’ compensation premiums through targeted prevention programs.

Severity of injuries: When an older worker is injured, the injury tends to be more severe than when a younger worker is injured. The incidence of workplace fatalities rises with advancing age and the amount of time workers spend recovering from injury increases with age, too. The increasing severity of injuries is likely due to declines in the overall health of older employees, who tend to have more chronic disease.

Work-site health promotion programs and evidence-based screening tests will be increasingly important tools for employers to offer as the workforce ages. In addition to benefitting an aging workforce, these programs can support a generation of younger workers who are less healthy, on average, than previous generations.

The big question for many U.S. employers is whether —like BMW—they are willing to address these challenges head on. Designing workplaces that are “age-friendly” may require some difficult conversations. There are laws, after all, that protect workers from age discrimination, so conversations about aging at work can be particularly sensitive.

Promising case studies, such as a pilot research project underway at Children’s Hospital Colorado, may provide useful lessons. Children’s Hospital, a leading pediatric health-care system, has joined with researchers at the University of Colorado to study what health-care organizations can do to optimize the skills and experience of aging health-care workers, much the way BMW optimized its older autoworkers’ skills and experience. The team thinks that by adhering to the principles of universal design, by talking candidly with employees and managers in the hospital, and by reducing slip, trip, and fall hazards, Children’s Hospital can improve on its already stellar record as an employer.

When asked why Children’s Hospital is working on the project, the hospital’s occupational health manager, Roberta Smith, said, “When you think about it, the things that are safer for older workers are good for younger workers, too. It’s a no-brainer. Preparing for an older workforce is also going to help our younger employees age well.”

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