What’s Working for Older Workers—And What That Can Teach All of Us
by Tammy Nelson
New York City’s Age Smart Employer Awards recognize firms that embrace policies supporting workers of all ages — including older employees — and the benefits these companies reap can be instructive to us all.
A full 18 percent of New York City’s workforce is composed of 700,000 actively employed residents over the age of 55. The aging of the sizeable Baby Boom generation, coupled with longer lifespans and the desire among many people to work later into life, means the number of employed older New Yorkers will continue to grow for at least the next 20 years. Employers that wish to maximize their access to and retention of this experienced workforce must install policies and practices that make work work for people of all ages, including older workers — not only in New York, but across the country.
With this need in mind, the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center and The New York Academy of Medicine, with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, created the city’s Age Smart Employer Awards, which research and identify best practices for retaining, recruiting and maintaining productivity of older workers.
The second Age Smart Employer award winners and finalist were announced in December. While the selected firms embody a range of philosophies that value and support the contributions of older workers, there are several common themes shared among all those recognized.
While most people think of job flexibility in terms of hours worked or workplace location, another factor that has tremendous impact for older workers is flexibility in structuring job duties. Companies frequently get bogged down by strict job descriptions and “the way we’ve always done it.” But firms that can think outside the box and realize there are new ways of doing things are much better able to retain the invaluable expertise of older workers throughout their life path. As Ruth Finkelstein, associate director of the Columbia Aging Center, puts it, “We get used to packaging a certain set of tasks together because that’s how we’ve always packaged them, but frankly, some of things have to go together and some don’t.”
Finkelstein notes that Age Smart Employer winner Amy’s Bread clearly illustrates this willingness to restructure job duties. The company puts tremendous value in its expert bakers, many of whom have, as founder Amy Scherber puts it, “grown up with the business.” While much of their value is in their experience with combining ingredients and “knowing” the dough, some of the (literal) heavy lifting becomes challenging as they grow older. Finkelstein notes, “Amy recognized, in point of fact, the person who was kneading the bread and forming the loaves did not have to pop the heavy pan into the oven. Somebody else could. So that, in really concrete, specific terms is job restructuring — a more profound kind of flexibility.”
Lesson Learned: At your company, it may not be as straight-forward as who puts the bread into the oven, but being flexible about how tasks are assigned can help keep all employees engaged and working at what they do best.
Another approach shared among Age Smart Award designees, not surprisingly, is the availability of benefits. But again, this extends beyond what one typically thinks of as benefits — medical, dental, vision — to things like tools and ergonomics. Age Smart winner NYU Langone Medical Center taps their own occupational therapists to conduct ergonomic assessments for employees. Meanwhile, fellow winner Brooks Brothers asks current employees to assess new equipment before it’s purchased for their facility in Long Island City. These practices aren’t “concessions” to older workers because they are somehow debilitated, but conscious decisions to incorporate employee feedback and needs into business decisions that drive productivity and profitability.
Lesson Learned: Finkelstein says the winning firms ask themselves, “What are the needs of my workforce that optimize their productivity, their comfort, their happiness and make them able to keep being good workers for me?”
In general terms, the overall lack of training opportunities for older workers can be explained in two ways. First, some firms may focus training resources on younger workers who are honing their professional skills for the first time. Second, firms may limit training opportunities for older workers under the misconception that they won’t recoup those dollars over the remaining career of older employers. Age Smart employers, however, support training for ALL employees with the knowledge that training leads to loyal older employees who tend to contribute more years than younger employees, who may leave for better opportunities.
Metro Optics Eyewear, an ophthalmic services company, pays for staff members of all ages to become certified and licensed opticians. In fact, five of their 9 current licensed opticians received their licensing while working at the firm. Another Age Smart winner, Sunnyside Community Services actively recruits employees of all ages (so that their workforce reflects their multi-generational client base) and tapped management consulting firm McKinsey & Company to identify employees with career advancement potential, regardless of age.
Training, when done right, also maximizes the availability of experienced team members and older employees by passing on their coveted skills. This is especially true in trades — from plumbing to lens grinding to sewing — that are in danger of becoming lost skills among younger workers.
Lesson Learned: “There’s a theme across these winning firms,” notes Finkelstein. “There are skilled trades that are getting scarcer and scarcer, and firms that need these skilled workers are particularly interested in recruiting and retaining them.”
4. Action Plan for Retirement
While flexibility addresses the need to be nimble during an employee’s career, having an action plan for retirement speaks to how careers can best come to an end while providing benefits to both employer and employee. “Phased retirement” or “retire-to-temp” policies, both formal and informal, are common among Age Smart winners. Eneslow Pedorthic Enterprises Inc., a footwear store, allows employees to “dial up or dial down” their workload as retirement nears, and NYU Langone and Brooks Brothers offer workers the option to become part of a temp pool when they retire.
Lesson Learned: In the broadest strokes, what Age Smart Employers demonstrate — and what every firm interested in the spirit of OpenWork can embrace — is the understanding that employees have a life course that will go through many stages, ebbs and flows. Younger employees may need more mentorship or flexibility around childcare, while older workers may begin caring for elderly family members and eventually be looking toward retirement. Employees in each of these life stages provides a different contribution, motivation and level of experience. Every one offers tremendous benefit to firms willing to optimize policies and practices that are age-smart and people-smart.
Read more about the Age Smart Employer Award winners and finalists for information on how companies can build age-friendly environments.