Magazine article Occupational Hazards

The Resurgence of the Older Worker

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

The Resurgence of the Older Worker

Article excerpt


With an aging work force looming, it's important to penetrate long-cherished myths about the performance of older workers.

In the 1970's, the U.S. labor supply increased rapidly. "There were 100 applicants for every 10 jobs, and the person who got the job was a white male," recalls Audrey Freedman, labor economist for the Conference Board. "Today, those 10 jobs attract 8 applicants. Four of them are women, three are illegal immigrants, and one takes dope."

Even now, Freedman points out, dramatic changes are taking place in the makeup of America's workplace. The trend toward a tighter job market is bound to intensify, she warns. "Business must change its hiring criteria, and must expand and intensify employee training programs," she asserts.

Freedman doesn't expect these policy changes to come overnight: "The old hiring patterns are more ingrained than policy; they're a habit." Nonetheless, the handwriting is on the wall. White males in the labor market are decreasing at the rate of 2 percent a year, according to Freedman. Those job openings, as well as many others in the workplace, will be filled by women, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.

"We're already in a period of slow growth of the labor supply," says Freedman, "and most of the growth derives from greater numbers of women and immigrants -- some of them illegal immigrants -- in the labor market. A recession might lighten the pressure, but only temporarily."

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) projections, the slow growth will slow even more. BLS projects 139 million persons in the labor force by the year 2000, an increase of 21 million persons from 1986 to 2000. That compares to a growth of 31 million persons in the labor force between 1972 and 1986. Translated into percentages, the earlier growth rate was 2.2 percent annually, while the projected rate is 1.2 percent annually. The government economic forecast for the period is 2 to 3 percent growth annually. What that spells out to the experts is, at the very least, spotty labor shortages in certain skilled jobs, with the possibility of widespread shortages looming.

Changing status

In this changing labor market, many experts believe, status and role of the older worker will be reevaluated. The definition of the older worker in this context is over-50. As Associate Professor Glenn Mc Evoy emphasizes, Social Security and most private pension plans were devised for an earlier period when the basic thrust of private and public policy was to ease the older worker into retirement. This was done, in Mc Evoy's words, so that "the younger guys pounding on the doors" could be admitted to the workplace.

Mc Evoy, who's on the faculty of the business school at Utah State University, and his colleague, Professor Wayne Cascio of the University of Colorado, recently reviewed 93 studies on older workers' productivity. Mc Evoy said he came away from this project convinced that substantive changes must be made in public and private policy providing incentives for older workers to remain in the work force. Management should also be conducting continuous development courses aimed at keeping older workers up to speed on technological progress and the skills needed to use the modern technology, Mc Evoy maintains. But he's not confident that his advice will be heeded. "I don't look for management to respond to this situation until it's truly critical," he said. "At present -- I'm speaking generally -- management still has a big bulge of people in their late 30's and early 40's. Therefore, I don't look for the older worker to be granted significant incentives to stay on, from either the government or employers." By 2010, however, when the baby boomers start retiring, Mc Evoy looks for a flurry of belated, decisive action.

In the meantime, many of those in their 50's will have weighed their options and decided the incentives to retire prevailed over the frequently pallid disincentives. …

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