Over several decades I’ve held a variety of positions in large corporations. As I got older, I realized that the divide was no longer across gender lines as I had experienced throughout most of my career; it was in fact – Age! The Gender gap in the workplace was familiar to me, however I soon realized that gender discrimination had been replaced with age discrimination. In many large companies, if you haven’t reached Nirvana (“corporate executive management”) by a certain age then you are put out to pasture. This usually means that you should achieve middle or divisional management level positions during the sweet spot of your aging window between 35-50; in fact, the upper threshold could be as low as 45 years old! It is interesting that the “age divide” in the workplace appears to be more prevalent in male dominated organizations where the available management pool is predominantly male. Female managers tend to have more flexibility at the high end of the age window for reaching middle and upper management positions. This may be due to a couple of issues typically relating to women. First, women bear child rearing responsibilities in their early years resulting is a delay or sabbatical from their careers. Second, women approaching middle management levels are still rare in some organizations; therefore they are retained in order to fulfill gender quotas.
When the economic crisis hit (2006 – 2008) it became apparent that employees in my age group [Boomers aged 42 – 60) were making hard decisions about when and if they could retire. Our savings and investments had lost value and time was not on our side to recoup what we had lost. Therefore, some baby boomers were making decisions to stay longer in the workforce to maintain a certain quality of life AND to retain much needed health benefits since citizens born within in that time period were not eligible for social security and/or Medicare yet.
So here we have an aging population staying in jobs where they are rapidly becoming de-valued as employees. I say “jobs” because in my mind having a career implies growth – “career growth”. Statistics show there are more aging employees heading for retirement then young people entering the workforce. So why wouldn’t employers look for ways to obtain value from the most experienced group of workers they have while developing younger employees entering the workforce at the other end? Not only to retain them but also to actively utilize their knowledge to the benefit of the company and it’s shareholders? Makes sense doesn’t it?
Regardless of whether you were born at the beginning or the end of the birth boom, we all are healthier and more vibrant than our parents and we have many years of productivity ahead of us. Yet we also want options. Some of us want to remain in full time jobs not only for monetary reasons but because we enjoy the challenge. Many of us have or will have grandchildren with whom we want to spend more time. We don’t want to slow down as much as we want to change priorities. We want to add value through our work but also want to enjoy life. Some of us want to have time for volunteer work, to give back to society, or learn something new. How can we enjoy the second half of our lives if we are tied to dead end jobs where we are not valued or have lost careers as the result of economic and age related issues?
Then we have the employer’s perspective. Some industries more than others are struggling to compensate. For example, industries that rely on valuable intellectual property that has been developed over years or decades are vulnerable to an aging workforce. Some examples are highly skilled labor-intensive products such as precision machinery; services, and manufacturing companies that rely on technological expertise such as semiconductors; or medical research organizations. The best scenario for these companies are to retain employee expertise and experience developed over time, while simultaneously leveraging new knowledge and techniques offered by a younger, recently educated employee demographic. In some organizations, solving the aging problem conflicts with employee equal rights. The Diversity Director of a huge organization whose experienced employee base was aging and they were trying to develop programs to retain their valuable institutional knowledge told me, “I don’t want to keep every employee who is eligible for retirement, just the good ones!”