Managing Older Workers

Allan Hoving

Many older workers are convinced that age discrimination is a major factor in hiring, promotion, layoffs. But is it mostly just in their head, or is age discrimination real? According to Peter Cappelli, Wharton professor and coauthor of Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order, "age discrimination is certainly real; it is huge. To the extent we can measure these things, it is bigger than discrimination against race and gender. It’s also a much bigger group of people." The following is an edited transcript of a recent interview.

What are the recent trends regarding age discrimination?

Age discrimination claims were 19% of all claims in 1998 and 26% in 2008. And they probably have gone up, because in downturns we get more age discrimination claims because a lot of them are associated with being dismissed or laid off for age-related reasons.

The most interesting studies on this are ones where they sent people for identical job interviews and one group of people was older and the other was younger and everything else about them was identical. Some of these they just did it with sending resumes out. And you get very negative responses to the older people when the resume is absolutely identical as compared with younger people. And when they go, physically, to a real interview, the results get even worse.

The interesting thing is that the evidence we have on actual job performance suggests that on every dimension of job performance, other things equal, older workers do better. Absenteeism is lower, turnover is lower, job performance is better, interpersonal skills are better. On every dimension, older workers do better.

So granted, age issues in the workplace are real. Given the difficult economy and longer life expectancies -- and a Baby Boomer generation that isn’t likely to retire gracefully -- with all of these factors, integrating older workers is a reality that organizations are going to have to face.

Right. And what's driving this is really just greater life expectancy. The current generation is going to live about 10 years longer than the previous generation. And most of those years are actually healthy years, so it's not just that they're older; they're older without having nearly as many age-related infirmities.

And one of the reasons why people work longer is because you can't support a 20-year retirement. The odds now are that if you and your spouse hit 65, at least one of you, there’s a 50% chance you’ll make it to 90. And that’s a long time to support retirement if you’re going to stop working, say, at age 62.

Older individuals have always wanted to keep working; they wanted to taper off gradually. Very few people wanted to just stop and do nothing at all. But they were systematically frustrated in their ability to get other jobs, part-time work, contingent work. When you ask them why they want to work, it’s not for money. Even those people who say they are set for life, they don't need the money, want to keep working because of the social engagement it provides.

The subtitle of your book is How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order. Are you really addressing the younger manager?

Yes, that’s the issue, that’s really what’s different: the inversion of the organizational order. Previously, you assumed that your boss would always be somebody with more experience than you; almost always older but certainly somebody who’d been around your job longer than you, or the organization longer than you. Experience was associated with higher-level jobs.

We know that executives have gotten younger over the last generation. But the big issue is these older individuals who come back in, and not surprisingly, they discover that their supervisor is younger than they are.

And there are two issues there. The first is: the younger supervisors are frankly often afraid of managing somebody with more experience than they have. They don’t know how to tell them what to do. "This person knows more than I do about the job." And therefore they are reluctant to hire them. They won’t say that, but they'll find attributions and excuses to not hire them. And when they do hire them, when they do come in, they often find it difficult to tell them what to do, to hold them accountable. They just ignore the older workers sometimes. So that is the heart of the problem.

In the book you give advice on how to get the best out of these older workers. Can you give us an example?

The place where you see the best models for this is in the military, where they had this issue for a while: a second lieutenant out of the service academy or an ROTC program, 22 years old, is put in charge of a sergeant who's in their mid-40s and who has been in the service for a couple of decades. And that creates a lot of problems, especially when the lieutenant tries to boss around the experienced enlisted people.

So they’ve worked on this and basically taught the second lieutenants how to engage especially the sergeants. In the Marine Corps they have a phrase for this, really: "You’re a partner with the sergeant and you’re making decisions jointly."

But it’s really trying to get away from a way of management which never works very well, frankly, this kind of top-down command idea: the idea that "You should do what I tell you because I'm the boss, and particularly it’s because I know more than you do about this." Getting away from that requires a way of managing which engages employees more, engages their input, asks them for their advice more, involves more goal-setting than traditional managers might be comfortable doing.

There’s nothing wild about this approach to management, though. It’s seems to work well for everybody, but for older subordinates it's especially important to do.