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A New Wrinkle In Retirement Policies
 

Encouraging employees to stay on the payroll beyond the age of retirement makes good business sense.
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Two days a week, Virginia Coulter rides a commuter train to Warren Publishing Corp. near Boston's old garment-and-leather district where she types, handles paperwork and generally functions as an office manager. She also pitches in on the production of the company's weekly newspaper, Banker & Tradesman, which caters to financial and real estate interests in Massachusetts. That often means spending hours on her feet, pasting up columns on a tall easel -- a tiring task by any standard. But Coulter is used to it. At age 79, she has been on the job for 62 years, longer than anyone else currently employed at Warren. Her routine, she says, is too ingrained in her life to give up -- and the same is true of many of her co-workers.

"Just look around this room," she says, gesturing at the typing pool behind her. "Most of these girls are almost my age, and a lot of them work more hours than I do. That one there is in her seventies, and she works at least three days a week. And that one over there -- look how fast she types! She even takes work bome." But the real workaholic, Coulter says, is her sister -- Winifred Church. "She's been running the mail room, five days a week, for 40 years. Did she tell you she's 82?"

Anyone who asks Winifred Church to reveal her age gets a forthright answer -- but not without a short speech on her definition of the word "old." Age, Church explains, is only a-number, and is no indication of a person's ability to be gainfully employed. She continues working full-time -- and braving Boston's commuter-clogged Southeast Expressway twice daily in her new K-car -- because, she says, "people do what they want to do, as long as they can do it." Sure, there may be a few older people who are no longer mentally or physically capable of holding a job, but "I've also known some people who were pretty decrepit at the age of 30," sbe points out.

Eight of Warren's 35 employees are eligible for social security, but they are allowed -- or rather encouraged -- to stay on the payroll as long as they like. It is company policy says president Tim Warren Sr. "Why should we tell anyone that they have to stop working at any given age when we can provide a flexible environment that supports them?

Warren lets his would-be retirees determine how many hours they want to work and, within reason, what duties they would like to retain. He pays them $7 to $9 an hour -- at least as much, he says, as what he would have to pay younger workers. There are no exclusions from or restrictions on their participation in company benefits programs: even profit sharing is available to them. The only difference among the older set is that the company prorates its benefits in accordunce with the number of days per week the employee works. A two-day-a-week employee, for example, gets 4 of the company's 10 paid holidays, two-fifths of the normal company contribution to a health plan, and a like proportion of the annual profit-sharing sum.

Warren likes to call this his "compasionate retirement program," one in which people are not forced by so-called social engineers to give up work that has, over long careers, become an integral part of their identity. But, lest his policy be construed as charity, Warren quickly interjects that his $1.5-million company benefits from the program just as much as its post-retirement-age participants do.

"We get tremendous value out of our older workers," Warren says. Because many of the company's jobs are clerical, and work loads fluctuate with publishing schedules, he finds it more cost effective to use part-time employees -- and older people, he says, are usually more interested in such positions than younger, more career-oriented workers. In addition, Warren says his older employees can usually teach their younger co-workers a thing or two about what the phrase "work ethic" means.

"When you bring young people in and put them in un environment in which they observe older people working right up to the last minute, paying attention to what they're doing -- it's like parenting," Warren says. "This sense of responsibility, these diligent work habits, all of this is very definitely transmitted by older people to younger people. And we like it, because it makes our company a microcosm of the world -- young and old, working together."

Warren tends to downplay the novelty of his policies saying there was never any calculated decision made to create and perpetuate this mix of young and old; it was merely something that evolved over the company's 111-year history. "It's who we are, what we do," says Warren, shrugging. And, he adds, it probably isn't all that unusual.

"But it is!" says Malcolm Morrison, director of the U.S. Department of Labor's National Studies on Mandatory Retirement. "All of the studies I've seen indicate that the companies with flexible-retirement options -- those that allow people to work beyond retirement -- probnbly number less than several hundred. A lot of companies won't even examine the issue, won't even cost it out." Why not? "There are negative attitudes and beliefs about the productivity of older workers, and although there are studies that should refute these ideas, many companies aren't swayed." Such studies, Morrison says, show that older people are indeed productive workers, with lower absenteeism, greater job stability, and a more positive attitude than younger employees (age 18 to 35). Retaining older employees, he concludes, is more often a bargain than a burden.

The trend throughout the 1960s and '70s toward early retirement has also played a role in discouraging experimentation with flexible-retirement options, Morrison says. "Companies have not been convinced that people want to keep working. They have seen people leave rapidly at age 55 or 62, and requests for anything but early or traditional retirement arrangements have been few, so nobody bothers to bend their personnel policies."

But Morrison and consultant Frank Bowe, a visiting professor at the University of Arkansas who specializes in issues involing older and disabled workers, believe that there is considerable, pent-up demand for post-retirement-age, part-time work, and that it will increase.

"Perhaps 75% to 80% of those considering retirement would keep working, if they could only get their job descriptions modified to allow for more safety, diminished physical demands, and, in muny cases, fewer hours," Bowe says. What older workers want, he says, is nothing more than what disabled workers are now guaranteed by federal law -- "reasonable accommodation." And, although now -- with high unemployment levels, particularly among young workers -- it may seem less than necessary for companies to make such concessions to older workers, Bowe is convinced that doing so is the best course for both business and society at large.

"We're talking about the fastest-growing segment of our population here. Which is better? Letting these people retire, and spending half of the nation's taxable payroll to support them? Or giving them something productive to do, so that we can quit paying people not to work?"

Government statistics indicate that those who reach the age of 65 today can expect to live to age 81, which means there is nearly a generation of people eligible for retirement. Yet, of the estimated 26 million Americans over the age of 65, only 4 million will hold a job during any given year. At the same time, the number of teenagers entering the labor force is shrinking dramatically. As of last July the United States had more residents over the age of 65 than it had teenagers.

"Gradually, certainly by the turn of the century, business will be watching a lot of workers go out the window," Morrison says. "Companies who don't plun for this exodus are going to face labor shortages. Policies will have to change. Early retirement will have to go." As the labor situation becomes more of a seller's market, he predicts, business will need to offer flexible working conditions to attract and hold retirement-age workers.

To begin assessing the potential impact of these changes, Morrison says, companies should carefully analyze the occupational categories, skills, and age of their work force, with an eye toward how those findings jibe with two more sets of figures: the company's projected labor needs for the next 10 to 15 years, and the expected supply of such workers. Much of this examination relies on guesswork, Morrison concedes, "but you should come away with a sense of whether your retirement policies will be appropriate a decade from now." If the determination is that they won't be, "develop some alternatives, and give them a fair trial."

Bowe and Warren, meanwhile, offer a few tips for how to ensure the success of an experimental flexible-retirement program:

* Check job descriptions for duties that may exclude older workers, and eliminate them, or train supervisors to find ways to work around them.

* Carefully match employees to jobs, paying strict attention to each worker's strengths and capabilities, then encourage employees to know and enforce their own limitations.

* Don't assume that older workers can't learn new skills, or won't welcome feedback and coaching.

* Above all, walk a prudent line between being flexible and giving older workers special treatment.

Virginia Coulter's advice? "Just learn to accept older people. We're not so diferent, you know, once you get used to looking at the wrinkles all day."

Last updated: Nov 1, 1983




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