Lost in a Time Warp: How Age Stereotypes Impact Older Baby Boomers Who Still Want to Work

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Worry about an adequate supply of labor while in the throes of the worst economic downturn in 25 years? Really? Yes. Even now, there are signs that the economy has bottomed and is starting to recover. When it fully recovers, businesses should expect to face a phenomenon seldom witnessed in the United States: a struggle to keep aging workers far beyond the customary age of retirement. Will those workers delaying retirement be subjected to the time-warped stereotypes about aging that burdened past generations? Could this stereotyping hurt their employers?

A Strange Phenomenon

If the anticipated economic upturn is somewhat sharp and rapid, rather than having an ample pool of labor to meet the increasing demand for goods and services, U.S. businesses may be competing for labor from a shrinking pool. If the economy recovers as expected, by the year 2012 there will be approximately 21 million new jobs, but only 17 million new entrants into the labor force (Schramm and Blake, 2004).

Lurking behind the relatively small number of working adults today over 64 years of age (5.6 million) looms 36.4 million workers between the ages of 50 and 64. As the leading edge of the post-World War II baby boom, this cohort represents fully 25 percent of the current workforce (Grossman, 2008).

If these baby boomers choose to retire and leave the labor force as past generations did around age 65, there simply are not enough younger workers to take their places in an expanding economy. An increasing inability to find the necessary number of replacements suggests that employers will seek to keep the boomers at work.

Employers are aware of this impending shortage, and even in the presence of the current economic downturn, a recent survey of more than 140 midsize and large U.S. employers revealed that 61 percent have developed or will develop programs to retain targeted employees near retirement age (Miller, 2009).

There are indications that many of these aging workers will be inclined to respond positively to offers of extended employment. For one, people are living considerably longer than they did 50 years ago. So there is reason to believe that the physical ravages of aging may not force the baby boomers to exit their jobs at the traditional retirement age. For another, baby boomers have done a lousy job of saving for retirement: Anywhere from 15 to 23 million of the approximately 78 million baby boomers may be forced to remain in the workforce because of inadequate financial resources (Stark, in press).

Coming to terms with an aging population and a growing tide of graying workers represents a very strange phenomenon for U.S. businesses. Many business leaders would love to emulate the Google business model in which bright young people are hired and turned loose in an internal environment designed to foster peak performance, speed and innovation. Such a desire will soon run headlong into the harsh realities of a shrinking labor market, increasing competition for those bright and energetic young employees, and reconciling corporate images of vigorous and energetic organizations with the reality of an increasing portion of the workforce composed of individuals at or near the end of their traditional 40- to 45-year career spans. Perhaps, we are moving into an era in which having one's car fixed or tonsils removed by a 75-year-old will seem normal (Collins, 2009)?

Across a New Landscape Carrying Old Baggage

Age-related biases and preconceptions in which youth is the standard held in highest esteem--young is always better, and old age is bad--permeate U.S. society, and research documents this reality. People, in general, are simply more negative toward older people (Kite and Wagner, 2004). In situations lacking relevant information, younger workers, on average, received higher performance ratings than older workers, and younger workers are, in general, favored over older workers when performance ratings are compared against each other (Finkelstein, Burke, and Raju, 1995). …