When Older Workers are Overlooked,
It’s Employers Who Miss Out

Posted Monday, April 8th, 2013| Comments (9) rule

Jacquelyn B. James, PhD
Director of Research
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College

Phone: 617.552.2860
Email: jamesjc@bc.edu

By now, most of us are familiar with the plight of unemployed older workers in today’s unforgiving economy. But allow me to introduce you to a less well-covered phenomenon: the plight of businesses that don’t hire older workers.

The recent Boston Globe article “Long-term joblessness hits older workers hard” did an excellent job portraying the struggles older Americans face when trying to find work past the age of 50. As one out-of-work 60-year-old profiled in the article states, interviewers 20 years younger than he was did not seem eager to “hire their dad.” What the article did not touch on is that those interviewers are putting their employers at a comparative disadvantage by overlooking the skills, experience and added value older workers offer.

First, let us dispel the myth that senior citizens are just too old for the workplace. We all know that workers, for the most part, don’t retire at 60 anymore. But that’s not just because they can’t afford to—it’s because 60 isn’t old anymore. Today’s 50-, 60-and 70-somethings not only need to work, they want to work, and they are fully capable of doing so. In fact, the average health of today’s older worker is no worse than that of their younger counterparts, and by some measures is better. A 2012 AARP survey asked Americans aged 35 to 80 to rate their overall health and happiness, and found responses generally increasing with age. Other surveys have found adults over 65 reporting lower levels of depression, loneliness, and other mental health problems than their younger peers. The perception that people over the age of 60 are somehow mentally or physically unsuited for the workplace is as outdated as a fax machine.

But it’s not just that older workers aren’t risks or burdens to organizations. They are, in fact, a benefit. Numerous studies have shown that older workers are the most satisfied with their jobs and the most engaged of all age groups, which any manager can tell you leads to higher levels of presenteeism and productivity. They very often bring relevant experiences, strong attention-to-detail, and resilience built from years on the job that their younger peers may be less likely to offer.

Some of you might be thinking ‘great, a 60-year-old may have something to offer my company, but they’ll only be there for five or ten years, so why put in the investment?’ But that line of thinking ignores the dynamics of the modern workplace, After all, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median tenure for 25- to 34-year-olds at their current employer is just 3.2 years. Hiring a 60-year-old could very well offer the company a longer tenure than hiring a 30-year-old.

Yet, the perception remains that older workers are not up to the job or not worth hiring. Nearly a quarter of all cases brought to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2011 claimed discrimination on the basis of age. Older workers are routinely passed up for promotions, forced out of jobs, or simply not given the chance in the first place. These kinds of ageist attitudes don’t just hurt older workers; they hurt the entire organization. A recent survey conducted by the Boston College Sloan Center on Aging & Work found that a perception of bias in the workplace against older workers generates lower senses of engagement among both older workers and younger workers. That’s right, even the perception that older workers are being discriminated against has a negative outcome for the company, across the board.

It’s high time for employers and employees alike to rethink our perceptions of older Americans in the workplace. Older workers are more than up to the job, they often bring unique skills and outlooks no one else can offer, and discriminating against these workers not only hurts them, it hurts the entire company.

Hiring managers who look at the resume of a 50+ worker and see a risk or a burden should look again. Older workers don’t need your pity. Firms that pass on the opportunity to hire them do.


Jacquelyn James, PhD is research director at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work and co-author of The Crown of Life: Dynamics of the Early Postretirement Period (with Paul Wink)

9 responses to “When Older Workers are Overlooked,
It’s Employers Who Miss Out”

  1. Frank Hoffman says:

    Great article and definitely a valued perspective, even for myself. As one of those “older workers” (60+), I often talk myself out of applying for a position because, based on my age or other interests< I won't be at the company that long-but Ms James' retort was spot on-the average longevity for younger workers at any company is not likely to be longer than mine would be…and ideally I would bring more to the table. In any event, thank for the well-thought out piece.


  2. Bette Huston says:

    Not wanting to hire your Mother or Dad is not new thought.
    I have worked to have my opinions and efforts valued for over 40 years as most people especially women have.

    I value my interactions with all co-workers even when they are not smooth. Younger ones have their own visions to achieve and I value being an asset in that adventure.

    Without the guidance and support from my older co-workers throughout the years (even when I disagreed AND was right), I would not have achieved what I did.

    Not ready to stop yet.
    Thank you for your article.

  3. Shiri A Bogan says:

    Great article, we need more of these.

  4. Rick Jantz says:

    Hi. Enjoyed your article. I’m glad you included the reference to the younger workers who only stay 2-3 years. That’s so true and they don’t come with the experience and wisdom that older workers have. Thanks

  5. Gina says:

    I currently work in a place that during the daytime they have older people working. I am in my mid-twenties and I am up early daily so I prefer days as well. The majority of my coworkers are 60+ along with in the other departments (I work at a casino). Many of my coworkers have worked there for over 15 years, most transferred over after they built the new casino, and all of them state that they love their job. They have numerous friends they have found in the customers and they are there everyday, on time, and rarely complain. It is refreshing to work with them, a lot less drama than what you find in young adults these days.

  6. Gay says:

    I was laid off in 2009 after working for HP 31 years….Was in my 50’s then and the oldest in my group at work. Now I got a part time job as a caregiver. They were the only ones that would hire me. Not much money. I have went for alot of interviews….Some group interview and I was the oldest one there…Of course they didn’t hire me. Sprouts was a good one because I had my son with me when a new store was opening … They told him to go to a hotel after the interview in front of the new store. They didn’t tell me to go to the hotel. We got to the hotel and I sat in the car and watched all the young people go into the hotel that
    were interviewed in front of the store…None of older people were asked to go to the hotel.
    If I hadn’t of been with my son I would not of known what they were doing…. I have experience in many different fields…. But they won’t hire me…. I care for seniors now….

  7. Herbert Dee says:

    Seeking for job and no one wants to hire me, also seeking for help to get a job again near home. I say age is just a number. Have 35 years of experience. Need help, went for 8 interviews and was told to have this and that to get hired, same job readvertizes 3 times now.

  8. Moshe Gustus says:

    Every time I see a really good post I go ahead and do three things:1.Share it with all the relevant contacts.2.keep it in all of the favorite bookmarking sites.3.Be sure to come back to the same website where I first read the post.After reading this post I am seriously concidering doing all of them.

  9. Candace Barr says:

    Oh, how I wish recruiters, hiring managers and employers would read this – AND LISTEN!

    I enjoy working with 50+ job seekers, but it does present some serious challenges. I’ve found a few strategic tactics that really work well when preparing bios, resumes, CV’s and LinkedIn profiles .. but the fact remains, there is a massive amount of ageism in HR, and it hurts everyone.