Who Are You Calling Old?

Posted Wednesday, March 7th, 2012| Comments (5) rule
Samantha Greenfield
Employer Engagement Specialist
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Boston College

Phone: 617.552.9117
Email: samantha.greenfield@bc.edu
Kim Lee De Angelis, PhD
Research Associate
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Boston College
Phone: 617.552.2890
Email: kim.deangelis@bc.edu

In 2006, the Sloan Center on Aging & Work published a brief titled “How Old Are Today’s Older Workers?” by Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, center director, and Michael A. Smyer, former co-director. The brief offers a perspective that employers today would be wise to keep in mind.

In it, the researchers discussed the difficulty of pinning down what employers mean when they refer to “older workers,” “mature workers,” “senior workers,” and “experienced workers.” Here’s the problem. In times past, Dr. Pitt-Catsouphes and Dr. Smyer pointed out, a “mid-career worker seemed to become an older worker once they started to plan for retirement.” What’s more, the “status of being an older worker signaled the end of a career.” Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics showing many adults choosing to work past the age at which they could claim retirement benefits indicated to Dr. Pitt-Catsouphes and Dr. Smyer that a more dynamic view of age than proximity to eligibility for benefits was in order. They argued:

Today, many adults are working later into their 60s and 70s, and many make a gradual transition from full-time employment to full-time retirement by having a bridge job. It is no longer clear when adults move from a mid-career status into an older worker status.

The results of a 2009 survey conducted by Careerbuilder.com offer further evidence that old ideas about “who is old” have lost their usefulness. One in five employers (21 percent) reported that as their employees approach retirement age, they ask to continue working. Most employers in that situation (86 percent) said they were happy to oblige, and for the following reasons:

  • Employers want to hold on to [older workers’] intellectual capital (65 percent)
  • Mature workers can help train and mentor others (61 percent)
  • Mature workers know how to weather a tough economy (42 percent)
  • Employers have more time to transition responsibilities (36 percent)

In a recent blog, Jacquelyn B. James, Ph.D., the Sloan Center’s research director, stated:

Today’s older adults have much to offer in terms of talent, energy and social contributions. Human development continues throughout the life span. Finding ways to reach this potential will have positive outcomes for both older adults and for society as a whole.

The new reality she describes is a challenge for managers and human resources administrators at a time when many workers nearing and passing retirement age are not, in fact, retiring, but instead are continuing to work and add value to their companies.

With this demographic and cultural shift, the words employers and employees use to describe age and the old ideas that underlie the words must change. The 2006 Sloan Center brief quoted Victor Marshall, a scholar at the Institute on Aging at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as follows:

Conceptions of “who is old” vary greatly across cultures, across historical periods, and by industrial sector. We found in the IT sector that workers are considered old if they have children. Ballet dancers and professional athletes may be considered old in their twenties or thirties, airline pilots in their fifties, and Supreme Court Justices in their eighties. It is important to investigate how employers and workers informally designate workers as young or old, and whether such designations are associated with the attribution of positive characteristics (e.g. wisdom and responsibility) or negative characteristics (e.g. unable to learn new technology).

So, who are you calling old? A more perceptive and precise vocabulary is the gateway to new responses that can energize talent management and retention initiatives now and in the future.


Kim Lee DeAngelis, Ph.D., is a research associate at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. She focuses on current case studies and workshops related to the center’s research. Previously, she was director of human resources at Talbots, Inc. She earned her doctorate in human and organizational systems at Fielding Graduate University, where she conducted research on Generation X in the workplace.

Samantha Greenfield is an employer engagement specialist at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work, connecting employers around the world with the center’s research projects. She has worked in the human resources department of two large Boston law firms. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Elon University, in North Carolina.

5 responses to “Who Are You Calling Old?”

  1. anonymous says:

    I couldn’t resist! In 1998 at 56 yrs age, my husband failed consistently to gain a role in IT despite his experience (“too old, IT is a young man’s game”). A consultant suggested he dye his hair and reduce his age – behold at 46 he received 3 offers in quick succession. He accepted the first offer and as the company expanded he developed the IT services to keep pace. By 2011, at age 69, he was managing a global network on his own and, with the time zones, it was intense and constant work. He decided to resign. The company was horrified and immediately offered to review his work load if he agreed to stay. His co-workers and managers still believe that he has not achieved the “big six zero”! When there is a celebration for someone else’s 60th, he has great fun teasing, and taking the reposts to the teasing on the chin, knowing he is well past the 6 0 experience. Putting your age back 10 years means he has had to be carefulhas – he cannot admit to being married 42 yrs,or having a son of 41 without inviting comment on his early marriage; he is amazingly adept at passing off questions with a joke. Using the criteria for IT age, my husband is a dinosaur!

  2. Thank you for starting this discussion. I hope you have a lot of people weighing in on this one. For those currently viewed as “old” (could be anyone 45 and older)today, there is a lot at stake in even beginning to talk about this. Attitudes toward aging handed down from one generation to another are affecting not only the attitudes of employers, vendors, and policy makers, to name only a few; they are affecting our attitudes toward ourselves. Many of us who don’t “look” old are readily pegged as old because for some reason we are acting that way. So I welcome your exploration and look forward to seeing what comes of it.

  3. Lynne Steiger says:

    The society and the government segregated the old and the young. Society started to label the older people as “seniors.” Labeled as it is, these seniors tend to act like old, speak like old, dress up like old, and think like old. These are all rubbish and will become a disease if not thrown away.

    I am a young 61 and ready to retire in nine months from my employer of 15 years. However, retirement to me is just starting a new level of career in my life. No matter what I said about me being young, employers will look at me as old, so my next move is a total makeover of appearance, and start thinking young and the rest will follow. I plan to compete in speed ballroom dancing with 26 yr. old competitotrs, which I already won in 2007.

  4. Stephanie Fenwick says:

    I believe that Dr. DeAngelis and Ms. Greenfield are right on the mark when they suggest that it is language and underlying perceptions about what it means to be “old” that must shift in order to effectively meet the demands of a rapidly changing work force. In order for there to be a “more perceptive and precise vocabulary” related to aging, however, there will also have to be a recognition that much of our Western, consumer-oriented focus is an enabling factor in our attitudes towards the aged and aging. We have done peole a great disservice by encouraging the idea that what we own and what we look like is what makes us have core value, rather than the importance of each human life and the inherent dignity we possess at every stage of our lives. As an adult educator, I find discussions in the classroom that help get at underlying beliefs and values as one way to move towards dismantling systems that oppress not only the elderly, but other marginalized groups. We must all be part of the conversations that move towards “wholeness” and “wellness” for all individuals.

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