In the past few weeks, I’ve heard a lot about aging and ageism in the workplace. But it took reading some comments on an article I found to doing research on the candidates in Politico.com entitled, “John McCain doesn’t work weekends,” to realize how pervasive the problem is. If left unchecked, this ageism will keep companies from using flexibility to strategically retain valuable, older employees as they approach what used to be “retirement.”
According to Politico, since winning the nomination, John McCain’s advisors had made “the conscious decision…to use weekends to return their candidate to her preferred surroundings in Arizona and to have him rest, bone up on policy, and meet privately with aides, advisers, contributors and other prominent officials.” In other words, John McCain had readjusted his work+life fit when his realities changed.
I thought this was a great example of work+life fit in action. But then I started reading the comments people posted on the site about the article. I was surprised to see how many of the comments attributed McCain’s decision to his age and his inability to keep up with the pace of a presidential campaign. It seemed funny to me, since it had never crossed my mind that his age was the reason for adjusting his fit. Maybe that’s because I am 43 years old, and quite frankly I don’t know how any of them survive campaigning regardless of their age. But obviously the issue of age immediately crossed the minds of a lot of other people. Perhaps you can attribute some of the commentary purely to politics, but the fact remains that it was out there.
So, what do we do and why does it matter? Just as a number of organizations have worked hard to prove that moms who leave the workforce are a valuable untapped resource (Center for Work Life Policy, iRelaunch, Womenatwork), older workers need advocates and voices to challenge outdated stereotypes and highlight that they are also a valuable, yet too-often overlooked, resource.
And the good news is that the conversation is gaining traction. Blogs like Time Goes By, write honestly about the reality and impact of “workplace age ambivalence.” Recent studies, such as the MetLife Foundation’s 2008 Encore Career Survey, are reaffirming that 50% of respondents ages 44 to 70 years old want what they call, “encore careers,” or second careers that combine money, meaning, and social impact.
The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College just received a second major $3.5 million grant from the Sloan Foundation, which is evidence of its commitment to the issue. The “cornerstone” of the Center is employer-engaged research in which employers are, “provided opportunities to accelerate their understanding of workplace responses to the changing age demographics of the workforce…(and) receive information about new and innovative practices as experiences unfold and findings emerge.”
The Center has an important study on Age & Generations coming out in the Fall, “which surveyed over 1,900 employees from 12 different worksites across the country, (and) suggests that there can be differences between employees’ ages/generations and their life-stages or career-stages. For example, some employees in their early 60s still think of themselves as mid-career (not late career as might be expected), as do some in their early 20s. Furthermore, when we look at a single generation, such as Baby Boomers, some of the employees say they are early career, others mid-career, and yet others late-career.” Another example of how the neat little boxes we’ve constructed to understand “work” and “life” no longer apply..
Finally, we must face the reality that there are some real structural challenges to be addressed in order for meaningful change to occur. You may have read about these changes in the recent New York Times article, “For a Good Retirement, Find Work. Good Luck.” In addition to reiterating the stark, age-related stereotypes that boomers are experiencing, the article outlines the policy changes that must occur. It suggests, for example, creating a category of “paid up” worker. After 40 years the worker’s employer no longer has to contribute to Social Security or Medicare, “making Medicare the primary payer of health care costs for people over 65, whether they are working or not.”
If my experience inside companies is any indication, some of the most innovative work and life thinkers are over 55 years old. It isn’t age, it’s mindset. Stereotypes about mothers who leave the workforce have kept a valuable resource untapped for too long. And unless we start actively challenging outdated stereotypes about getting older, I’m afraid ageism will do the same. What do you think?