Jonne Donne said:

No man is an island, 

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thy friend's

Or if thine own were:

Any man's death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

There was a notable article in the Harvard Business Review last week titled, "The U.S. Isn't Just getting older. It's Getting More Segregated By Age."  The article, authored by Marc Freedman and Trent Stamp, talks about a concerning new social trend, to wit, the ghettoization of the older worker.

This ghettoization is a roadblock to what may well offer a solution to our growing employment crisis.  Simply put, we need to get older workers back to work again to compensate for our dearth of employees.  Bloomberg recently said that "the ability to spot, mobilize, and deploy older workers is the next biggest source of competitive advantage in the U.S."

To do this effectively we need to holistically reintegrate these seniors back into the corporate fold.  To effectively reintegrate older workers we have to confront people with their prejudices, their biases, and their fears about age.  There are more Americans now over 50 than under 18.   I wrote about this in my column of June 4, 2018.  ["Older People, Not Robots, Offer The Best Answer To Employment Conundrums."]

Note Brown University historian Howard Chudacoff, who points out in his book How Old Are You?, age was not a big deal till the late 1800s.  Chudacoff states, "The country's institutions were not structured according to age-defined divisions and its cultural norms did not strongly prescribe age-related behavior."  In HBR Freedman and Stamp state, 

"...during the industrial age in the U.S., an assembly-line mentality led to grouping people by age, in the hopes of standardizing everything from the education of the young to the care for the elderly.  And it brought some benefits.  But the extreme degree to which we've shunted young people into educational institutions, middle-aged adults into workplaces, and older people into retirement communities, senior centers, and has come with costs."

Cornell University Professor Karl Pillemer says in The Huffington Post:  "I think we're in the midst of a dangerous experiment,  This is the most age-segregated society that's ever been.  Vast numbers of younger people are likely to live into their 90s without contact with older people.  As a result, young people's view of aging is highly unrealistic and absurd." 

Freedman and Stamp report there is rampant ageism in the U.S., which is rooted in outmoded stereotypes.  These stereotypes are supported by the institutional lack of contact between generations.

But the fact is all of us are living longer, more productive lives.  And we need the productive work of our seniors.  Note that Japan, which has a much worse demographic imbalance than the U.S., has had increasing success keeping older employees in the workforce to compensate for decades of declining birthrates.

Furthermore, generational integration may actually improve worker productivity.  Freedman and Stamp point to an experiment (published in HBR) by two management professors, which found improvements of efficiency when the unique assets of youth and age were trained in tandem on the assembly line.  In this experiment the integrated assembly line resulted in improved productivity, reduced absenteeism, and fewer defects.  And at the end of the experiment, none of the workers wanted to leave the team.  

Institutional HR departments ceaselessly recruit the young with cool work accoutrements like pool tables and pig pong matches in their hip offices.  But perhaps these HR assumptions about what millennials really want are wrong.  I think millenials fundamentally want to find meaning in their lives through meaningful work.  Elder wisdom may facilitate that.  Perhaps millennials might grow to appreciate an integrated work place that melds the wisdom of maturity with the creative energy and change-vision of youth.  An age segregated work environment, focusing just on the perceived tastes of the young, is not the way to do that. 

(While we continue to grow our companies and live our quotidian lives, there is an increasing sense that we are just not in this together any more as a national culture, a country.  This sentiment increasingly permeates our whole society.  Our primary passion and loyalties now are given to organizations that profoundly separate us--like the NRA, the LGBTQ community, the Sierra Club, the Democrat and Republican parties, etc.)

So the segregation of the older working population is just one example of the current separation of citizens into isolating, smaller, self-serving modules.  In fact, we are becoming a balkanized country, more celebrative of our differences than of our similarities.

Thomas Jefferson once said, "Were people to mingle only with those of like mind, every man would be an insulate being."

Thank you, Tom Jefferson.

Published on: Jun 18, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.