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Q&A with Laura Carstensen: Why You Can't Afford to Ignore Senior Talent

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For reasons both financial and personal, Baby Boomers are working later into their lives. While workplaces often focus on recruiting younger talent, they’re ignoring the opportunities that seniors bring to their businesses, says Laura L. Carstensen, founding director of Stanford’s Center on Longevity. Here Carstensen explains how balanced, multigenerational teams can be more resilient and productive than lopsided ones.

Is the definition of "working age" as under 65 changing?

It’s not changing fast enough. The phenomenon is changing, but when one hears about the problems of aging societies and the strain on resources, almost all of that is based on a dependency ratio. That dependency ratio assumes that people 65 and older will not be in the workforce. Many of these dire predictions about broad-scale economic doom as we have older populations are premised on an idea that very likely will not hold.

Now that people are working later into their lives, are workplaces and employers prepared to accommodate them?

No. There are some who are preparing and doing a good job of it, and they are benefitting. But most large-scale industries and companies are not. In fact, they’re very concerned about older workers and their productivity and worry that productivity will be decreased because of older workers.

Is that worry misguided?

One of the misconceptions is that older workers are less productive than younger workers, when there’s really very, very little evidence for that. Of course making broad generalizations about all different kinds of work is just wrong. If you’re driving a truck and carrying packages into stores, that may well be something that you’d rather not do into your late 60s. But in service-based jobs and knowledge-based jobs, there’s no evidence to my knowledge that older workers are less productive.

What are companies often ignoring about the value of older talent?

There’s a study or two based on European companies where they look at the productivity of teams of workers and compare same-age young teams with mixed-age teams and older teams. The finding from one study was that the mixed-age teams are actually the most productive of all. The finding was that young teams are very fast and they make a lot of mistakes. Older teams are slower and they make very few mistakes. The mixed-age teams seem to accommodate both young people and older people’s weaknesses and actually be more productive.

When employers begin to think about ways that they can optimize the fact that you’ve got very young to quite senior workers, then I think they’re going to really start to see exciting opportunities.

How do older workers contribute to a company culture?

There’s not a lot of research in this area, but a couple studies have looked at this find that older workers make important contributions to the social/emotional climate of the workplace. Older workers are more likely to help younger workers, to be engaged in generative interactions. So older workers will help train younger workers, and sometimes it’s just their very presence—it doesn’t have to be explicit training. You work in an environment with some people who have been there a long time, those people tend to help orient younger people as they get involved in the work.

What's one way to make an office friendlier to Baby Boomers?

Some employers are beginning to give people the options to have more flexible work, reduced hours, and a more gradual retirement transition. That helps employers, because it lowers the cost of older workers, but it keeps them engaged as part of the team.

Photo: Can Stock

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