Abraham Lincoln once said the following: "In the end, it's not the years in your life. It's the life in your years."
I was caught by this headline from Newsmax on Thursday, May 24, 2018. "Report: Air Force Might Bring 1,000 Pilots Out of Retirement." The article reports the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps have all experienced pilot shortages of late, according to a Government Accountability Office study. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has approved the attempt to reactivate 1,000 pilots to active duty.
So what's the implication of this headline for our business community?
The answer to this comes from a May 17, 2018 article in BloombergOpinion, which reports that by 2020, well over a quarter of the workforce will be over 55.
This figure certainly raises very real problems of training and retraining. Says Bloomberg, "Scary as the rise of robots apparently is, perhaps it's a fixation because it's actually less scary than the real social issues ahead. One of those is how to integrate growing numbers of elderly into the workplace. More elderly workers will force many people to confront their biases, fears, and prejudices about age, probably leading to a bigger cultural clash than that with the machines."
Culturally and practically most companies seem to want to present a trope of being cool places for younger people to work. (The median age at hot tech companies range from 27 to 31.) Media advertising for corporations certainly focuses on images of young people. And there can be no question that younger people are more in touch with the latest developments in rapidly changing fields like programing, coding, and software. The young are also more able to put in the crazy hours demanded by startups. They have more energy, they are more open to the new (not set in their ways), they often work for less money, they are healthier, ... and they are prettier. But new skills are trainable and the older employee often offers an unteachable wisdom, knowledge, perspective, and patience. These unquantifiable qualities come mostly from a lived life, from the travails of existence itself. As Albert Camus put it, "You cannot create experience. You must undergo it."
It was predicted that the age of the American workforce would be declining by now with the presupposed retirement of many baby boomers. However, the exact opposite has happened. (For instance, the labor force participation rate for men ages 65-69 was 25% in 1985 but 37% in 2016.) ["The Ultra-Productive Workers You Are Probably Overlooking"]
And we need these folks to work longer. Just as the military is experiencing a shortage of pilots, so businesses, large and small, are are experiencing a shortage of employees in general. The Saturday, June 2, 2018, Wall Street Journal reports that the unemployment rate has fallen to an 18-year low. We need new workers. Yet there is an HR bias against hiring the older worker. This attitude is nuts. It's old-fashioned, antediluvian cant that has not caught up with the times. We cannot afford to waste workers between 55 and 75. As we approach full employment we need to open up these resources of an aging population.
Though there is much talk of AI and robotics solutions to human worker shortages, it ain't here yet. Not by a long shot. Bloomberg suggests that the ability to "spot, mobilize, and deploy older workers is the next biggest source of competitive advantage in the U.S." While it is great fun to speculate on an eventual robot takeover (apocalypse), the payoff is much more immediate in reconfiguring and retraining the older worker. Companies should not be squeamish about using and investing in our gerontological resources. It is entirely possible the new older worker will be living productively to 100 in the not too distant future. (For a more global view of our current employment conundrums and options, particularly for small business, read Leigh Buchanan's excellent article in the June edition of Inc.)
Perhaps 70 really is the new 40. Deborah Banda, a senior advisor at AARP says, "Older workers are going to change the workforce as profoundly as women did."
As distinguished academic Dr. Scott Elledge put it on the occasion of his retirement from Cornell: "It is time I stepped aside for a less experienced and less able man." Thanks, Dr. Elledge.