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Archive for the “Old Folks” Category

Old folks are the future.
Yup.  Consider these facts:
  1. Projected life expectancy will surpass 100 in the next decades in many developed countries.  (This is about three times the average human lifespan in most of human  history.)
  2. 20% of the US population will be over 65 by mid-century in contrast to a roughly 14.5% at present.
  3. Old age is becoming much, much more robust.  Not only are we living longer, but we are living fully healthy, effective lives longer.  Many of us will be able to work effectively and happily into our 80s and 90s.  (Note mushrooming  advances in everything from joint replacement to memory enhancing drugs.)

Furthermore, let us consider entrepreneurs themselves.  The cliche of innovative entrepreneurship is of a t-shirted young dude creating disruptive technology in the garage.  Well, guess what?  That image is not accurate.  The Kauffman Foundation reports the highest rate of entrepreneurship in the US is among geriatrics between 55 and 65, with people over 55 as more likely to form successful companies than those between 20 and 34  (The Daily Beast).  Duke University Professor Vivek Wadhwa says the following:  “The average age of a successful entrepreneur in high-growth industries, such as computers and healthcare, is 40.  The vast majority–75%–have more than six years of industry experience and half have more than ten years when they create their startup.”  (PBS article cited in HBR blog, Whitney Johnson)  Increasingly, as Betty Friedan put it, “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”

Betty_Friedan_1960There is unquestionably 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.  Mature workers are more knowledgeable, experienced, disciplined, flexible and reliable than the young employee.
But more than all this they are wise in life.  They have had time to be knocked down hard several times.  This brings a practical humility–the humility of all of us who have failed a time or two.  Humility is a useful entrepreneurial skill that is only learned from living life itself.
In my own virtual executive sales company, Corporate Rain International, I hardly ever hire anyone under 35 years because my firm deals mostly with real decision-makers at corporations.  These C-suite types like dealing with their peers and a richly-lived life and broad executive experience creates an unteachable tonal gravitas that makes for more easeful high-level sales conversations.  There are going to be an increasing number of these highly useful people who still need to work.  And 70 is certainly becoming the new 50.
My father was an indefatigable NY Yankees fan and he loved Joe Dimaggio, who was noted as a great center fielder.  My father related that in Joe’s last year he didn’t have a whole hell of a lot left in his arm, which had always been a great intimidator of base runners.  He figured he had about one good throw in him per game.  So every night his last year, early in the game, after a routine fly out, he would put everything he had into a simple throw back into the infield.  This continued to intimidate runners, even though, for the life of him, he couldn’t repeat the feat again in that game.  Such is the sly wisdom of age.
Joe_DiMaggio_1951_Spring_TrainingThe older worker is simply an unmined vein of pure gold.  You cannot even teach the lifetime of skills and human experience he/she brings to any company.  As employers, we are stupid not to tap into this underestimated resource.  Rather than throw the aging worker on the HR dungheap, let’s use this untapped resource.
On his retirement from Cornell University, Professor Scott Elledge said the following:  “It is time I stepped aside for a less experienced and less able man.”  You go, girl!

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At a symposium of Inc.’s Business Owners Council last year,  Deepak Chopra related an incidental conversation he had with Bill Clinton over dinner. Clinton startled Chopra with the fact that there are millions of unfilled, high-paying jobs in the U.S. Enough to put a real dent in our unemployment rolls.  However, there is simply a dearth of Americans to fill these positions. Furthermore, this paucity of skilled workers is not getting better.

We are a country and a culture that glorifies youth, but the HR assumptions about the low value of older workers is simply out of date.  The increasing utilization of an aging workforce may well become a necessity.

In a Wall Street Journal article of December 28 (Section B, page one), James R. Hagerty describes this conundrum.  “Given high unemployment, companies could hire young workers to replace older ones, but many jobs require years of on-the-job training.”  So true.  And it is not just physically skilled jobs.  Much of the value in a service industry job–from salesman to consultant to trainer–comes from the unteachable gravitas and judgement that simply can’t be taught quickly.  Additionally, as I mentioned last week, many veteran workers are highly flexible and adjustable about hours, a plus for any business.  McDonald’s has a program for recruiting seniors for just this reason.

Joseph Coughlin, the director of MITs AgeLab, feels many more employers should be preparing to use and recruit an older workforce.  He points out that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 24% of the U.S. labor force (an estimated 40 million) will be 55 or older in 2018.  It’s already 18% of the workforce.  He says, “Frankly many companies don’t get it yet…They can’t imagine a time when there isn’t going to be this endless supply of young people coming through.”  Ergo, demography will necessitate workforce adjustments.

Duke Energy, Harley-Davidson, Unimin, and Vulcan Materials, among others, have instituted successful programs aimed at maximizing the life of their skilled veteran workers and hiring more when they can find them to recruit.  They are putting in place automation systems specifically created to vastly reduce physical demand on older workers.  They also incentivize their older employees to exercise and stay limber as a regular part of their workday.  Surely this increasingly healthy and long-lived generation should be a growing resource for the small businessman, as well as the large.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The years teach much which the days never know”.

Thank you, Ralph Waldo.

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Let us consider today the HR implications of the growing population of the gerontologically challenged and their opportunities and challenges for the entrepreneur.

I continue to be bemused by the insufficient attention that is being extended to an important demographic fact:  An increasing number of oldsters are working deep into their “Golden Years.” Edward Glaeser of Harvard writes about our graying workforce in a November 19, 2011 article in The New York Times.”

“Between 2007 and 2010, the number of working Americans over 65 years old jumped 16% …. The trend started before the current downturn:  the number of Americans over 65 in the work force increased from 10.8 % in 1985 to 15.1% in 2005 to 17.4 % in 2010.  Until 2001, most workers age 65 and older had part-time jobs:  since 2001, full-time work has been far more common.”

The number of unemployed older job seekers has doubled in the last four years and may double again in the next four.  Carl Van Horn, head of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, says,  “This is new.  It is different.  It is worse than we have experienced before and it is very widespread. It is going to [continue].”  (WSJ, Dec. 19, 2011)

The reasons for this are several.  One, people are simply healthier.  65 is the  new 50.  Two, 401-Ks have become 201-Ks and people cannot afford to retire.  And three, people no longer trust the “guaranteed” government programs will be there for them.

I’m sensitive to this phenomenon since my 17 year old executive outsourced sales firm, Corporate Rain International, has always relied on older employees.  Mine are in their 40s, 50s, and 60’s.  They desire flexibility and a freer lifestyle.  These veteran executives offer my clients useful gravitas, judgement, and personal sensitivity that can only come through the ups and downs of experience and a lived life.

I remember last year hearing the entrepreneur Norm Brodsky, speaking at an Inc. Magazine symposium in NYC, predict that most of the high-level executives laid off in 2009 will never be employed again at six figure jobs, or perhaps any job.  Never.  Yet these valuable people still want to work and, indeed, have to work.  (Edward Glaeser reports the number of unemployed elderly job seekers has more than doubled in the last four years and may double again in the next four.)

America glorifies youth.  But, like good football and baseball teams, there is corporate health in mixing seasoned players with rookies. An increasing glut of seniors seeking work can change the workplace for the better.  Again, Dr. Glaeser cites recent studies in Britain and Germany that find many positive correlations between labor-force participation among the elderly and the young.

Finally, Dr. Glaeser points out that the elderly are often the most entrepreneurial Americans.  He states, “Self-employment rises significantly with age.  West Palm Beach, a retiree haven, has the highest self-employment rate of any metropolitan area in the nation.”

So don’t automatically look askance at the graying boomers who want to, and will have to, work longer.  They are not a phalanx of drooling, curmudgeonly, useless old coots, but rather a rich new, cost-effective human resource.

As Francis Bacon said, “I will never be an old man.  To me old age is 15 years older than I am.”

Thank you Francis.

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