Mark Twain once remarked famously: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” While employers may say that they look for “older worker qualities”—stability, interpersonal skills and the ability to make immediate contributions—the plus-45 worker often struggles to get hired. The real challenge in today’s workplace lies in the younger managers learning to maximize the value provided by older workers and, hence, hiring them to be part of their teams. US-based Peter Cappelli, co-author of Managing the Older Worker, explains how younger managers can work with an older workforce. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
Managing the Older Worker: By Peter Cappelli and Bill Novelli, Harvard Business Review Press,208 pages, Rs 995.
What are the five common myths about older workers?
They don’t perform as well.
They cost more.
They must be grumpy.
They are more likely to quit.
They won’t take direction from anyone younger.
What are the common areas of conflict between older workers and younger supervisors?
Mainly issues of respect.
After what age does a worker get categorized as an older worker?
The legal definition is 45 in terms of protection from discrimination, but the issues we are talking about focus on those who are or are approaching what had been the traditional retirement age of 65.
How does the reversal of the reporting hierarchy change organizational structure? Does it give rise to conflicts and disputes since you suggest in the book that the younger manager is not capable of managing the older worker?
It doesn’t change the structure of the organization but it causes problems, first because younger supervisors aren’t sure how to manage older workers and may be afraid of them. So, as a result, they don’t hire them. The actual conflicts come about mainly when younger supervisors just leave older subordinates alone because they don’t feel they can be the boss of someone with more experience. To a lesser extent, older workers with more experience get annoyed by younger supervisors who don’t recognize their expertise.
Does your book hold relevance for the Indian workplace?
The issues are the same everywhere, but the urgency of the problem at the moment is greater in countries where the workforce is ageing rapidly. On the other hand, India has a big skill shortage, and employers need to think about how to keep workers who would otherwise retire engaged to help meet their skill needs.
You suggest in the book that the job performance of older workers surpasses that of younger ones. So why are they not preferred?
Older workers find it difficult to get hired because younger supervisors, who are doing the hiring, are afraid to hire them.
Ideally, what is a healthy older-to-younger employee ratio in an organization?
How they are managed matters more than the ratio, but I think in general one does not want so few of any demographic group in an organization that those individuals feel isolated.
How can bringing back the retired worker be cost effective for the organization?
They don’t necessarily cost more—the data, at least in the US, shows that there are really no premiums paid for age per se, just for experience. And they are more productive.
What are the common misconceptions that younger managers have about older workers?
Older workers aren’t that different from other workers. Although they probably have more in common with younger workers in that they have a greater interest in seeing meaning from the work they do, more interest in flexible work schedules that let them do things other than work, and somewhat less interest in money as a motivation for working as compared to middle-age workers.
How important is training and retraining to increase the productivity of older workers?
No more important than for other workers. The issue is that when job requirements change, skills need to change. So if older workers want to change jobs, they need training to do so.