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Employing Older Workers

You enter the labor force, you work until a certain age, and you retire. Or maybe you don't. More and more people are working into their later years, a trend that is expected to continue. — Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)


According to BLS, the labor force growth rates of those 55 and older are projected to outpace all other age groups over the 2020-2030 decade (see chart below). Specifically, the 75-and-older age group is projected to have a growth rate of 96.5 percent, while the growth rate of the 55-to-74 age group is expected to grow by 7.7 percent.

Although many organizations realize that their workers are aging, few have taken steps to prepare adequately for issues associated with older workers remaining on the job, those leaving the workforce, or the increasing number seeking new employment opportunities.

There are several misconceptions about older workers and the attributes they bring to the workplace. Employers may need to research these issues and re-educate their management on the realities of the aging workforce. Human resource issues associated with employing older workers cross almost all functional areas of the HR taxonomy including diversity, talent acquisition, benefits, and training and development. 


How to Avoid Ageism

Older Workers Find Lack of Employer Support

50 Years After Age Discrimination Became Illegal, It Persists 

Diversity Issues

Though many organizations have developed training initiatives for a culturally diverse workforce, few have grappled with age as a diversity dimension. Many managers may have negative perceptions about the abilities of older adults and may be uneasy about and show resistance to directing the work activities of individuals who are old enough to be their parents or grandparents. Managers may also lack the skills and abilities needed to supervise the diversity of values, work ethics and work styles represented in today's workplaces. See Four Myths About the Multigenerational Workplace and Harnessing the Power of a Multigenerational Workforce.

Multiple Generations in the Workplace

Employers now have five generations working side by side:

  • Traditionals/The Silent Generation (generally defined as those born 1925-1945).
  • Baby Boomers (generally defined as those born 1946-1964).
  • Generation X (generally defined as those born 1965-1980).
  • Millennials/Generation Y (generally defined as those born 1981-1994).
  • Generation Z (generally defined as those born 1995-2012).

Members of each generation or age cohort tend to have in common certain values and perceptions of work that arise from the shared experiences of their formative years. Each group brings its own expectations regarding authority and hierarchy, work ethic, work behaviors, and life issues, at times causing conflict or stress in multigenerational workplaces. Employers need to not only embrace the traits of each generation but also provide training and education to enable them to coexist productively. See 5 Generations + 7 Values = Endless Opportunities and Report Reaffirms Generational Tendencies at Work.

According to a SHRM Foundation executive briefing, what matters when working in a multi-generational workplace is to be able to move beyond generational stereotypes. For example, employers should consider factors such as an individual's stage in his or her career as well as his or her life stage when assessing worker needs. Development opportunities should be designed based on job level and type of occupation rather than age or generation. All employees (no matter what their age) can bring some benefit to the organization; train management to see past any age stereotypes so as not to overlook an individual's full potential. Also, consider that workplace conflict between older and younger workers is more about control and power than generational differences. See 5 Age Stereotypes Workplaces Need to Eradicate.

Affinity Groups

Employers have offered affinity or networking group membership as a tool for workers in specific groups to come together to discuss ways to make the workplace more accommodating to the specific issues faced by this group. Topics for older worker affinity groups may include on-site wellness program options (offering low-impact aerobics, for example), benefits coverage (including pension benefit issues), or specific training or retirement planning needs. See Viewpoint: Why Employee Resource Groups Shouldn't Be Colorblind.

Equal Employment Opportunity Issues

Age Discrimination at Work

The potential for age discrimination arises in both the realm of staffing management and employee relations. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects employees over the age of 40 with respect to any term, condition or privilege of employment, including hiring, firing, promotion and transfers, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training. Examples of age discrimination may include the following:

  • Showing a hiring preference for younger workers.
  • Retaining younger workers during layoffs or organizational restructuring.
  • Offering better terms/conditions of employment for younger workers.
  • Providing choice job assignments only to young workers.
  • Not including older workers in new training initiatives.


Discrimination Against Older Workers May Be Common but Hard to Prove

EEOC: Ageism Persists in the Workplace

Viewpoint: How to Steer Clear of Ageism in the Workplace

Workers Around the Globe Face Age Discrimination

Google Ends Age Discrimination Suit with $11 Million Settlement

Workforce planning

Due to the aging workforce, employers may need to consider what will happen when a significant proportion of their employees opt for retirement. Here are some workforce planning strategies to consider when preparing for employees' retirement:

  • Analyze. Look at employment data and determine what percentage of the workforce is eligible for retirement. Examine past retirement rates to see what percentage of those eligible might opt for retirement. Work with benefits actuaries to determine what the numbers will mean to the organization.
  • Conduct stay interviews. Have managers conduct stay interviews with all employees to help assess employee engagement and retention concerns on a one-on-one basis. See Stay Interview How-To: Core Features and Advantages and Stay Interview Questions.
  • Focus on Succession Planning. Listen for clues of employees who may take advantage of retirement eligibility. Identify employees who are asking for retirement advice and use this information to determine possible gaps for succession planning and knowledge retention.
  • Engage. Discuss prospects for continued employment under different terms with employees who are considering retirement. Determine if a position with less responsibility or fewer hours may be an option. Consider phased retirement or for snowbirds, seasonal work or virtual work. See Phased Retirement Gets a Second Look.
  • Survey. Conduct exit interviews with all exiting employees, especially those who are retiring, to assess the prospects for their continued employment under different terms. Consider post-retirement consulting for high-performing employees whose knowledge or skills cannot easily be replaced by new workers. Explore alumni groups to keep retirees linked to the organization.

Targeted Messages

Older adults tend to respond to messages that appeal directly to them. Recruitment messages that specify "mature," "experienced" and "reliable" all let the older reader know that they are being sought after for employment opportunities. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) approves of employers targeting older workers for employment purposes.

Targeted Recruitment Activities

Because many older adults are not actively seeking employment, employers should use more focused, visible forms of recruitment activities. Some ideas for more effectively designing targeted activities include:

  • Maintain connection with prior employees by creating alumni social networking options such as on LinkedIn or Facebook. Host periodic social events for these alumni networks where the company may be able to entice these retirees as well as other older adults to join the pool of part-time and/or temporary workers to meet the organization's temporary staffing needs.
  • Create recruiting partnerships with organizations that specialize in helping older workers and retirees locate work opportunities including:
    • AARP's Life Reimagined for Work program
    • American Society for Aging's Career Advantage
    • The Senior Community Service Employment Program
    • Community colleges in the Plus 50 Encore Completion Program
  • Post jobs in locations where mature job seekers are likely to look. This can include organizations targeted to a 50-plus demographic such as AARP and SeniorJobBank, as well as social media groups.
  • Publicize your efforts to have an age-diverse workforce. These efforts will have a positive impact on your employer brand.


Companies Renew Efforts to Retain, Hire Older Workers

Reconsider Recruiting Tactics to Find Older Workers

Best Practices for Recruiting and Retaining Older Workers

Professional Qualifications

Many organizations have previously identified older adults as being "overqualified," especially when they seek positions that would be considered a step down. This practice is problematic in terms of equal employment opportunity. The EEOC has stated that when employers use the term "overqualified" in their staffing procedures, it is code for "too old" and may become the basis for an age discrimination lawsuit. Instead of automatically disqualifying resumes and applications for older adults seeking a lateral or downward move, employers should now examine these resumes to determine if a job fit exists.


Hiring in the Age of Ageism

Is it illegal for us to ask for an applicant's or employee's date of birth?

Job Design

Jobs may need to be redesigned to accommodate older workers who develop disabilities due to the aging process. Some organizations have found that they are able to attract and hire more dependable and loyal employees by engaging in job analysis and by redesigning jobs to appeal to older employees. For example, offering more flexible hours, part-time or temporary assignments; creating jobs specifically utilizing the job skills of a retiree or older worker; and incorporating mentoring or coaching of newer professionals, etc. See Aging (Job Accommodation Network).


Many older adults find that they are faced with only two employment options: full-time work or retirement, when they want options somewhere in the middle. Organizations that have offered alternative work arrangements, including job-sharing, phased retirement, flex-scheduling and telecommuting, have found these options attractive not just for older adults but for many employees seeking greater flexibility in the need to balance home and work responsibilities.

Consider these scheduling options:

  • Traditional part-time work or voluntary part-time work. For example, V-Time, offered by New York state government offices, allows all employees to work between 70 percent and 100 percent of their schedule in 5 percent intervals.
  • Flexible work schedules around a core work period.
  • Nontraditional part-time work, such as having one week on and one week off.
  • Phased retirement, a gradual transition enabling employers to assist older workers preparing for retirement to reduce work hours over a period of time. See Taking Phased Retirement Options to the Next Level
  • "Rehearsal retirement," providing adults with the chance to work part time with their employer and to volunteer nonpaid hours at a nonprofit organization. 
  • Job-sharing arrangements that partner an older adult with a younger trainee.
  • Allowing employees to work seasonally for your organization, to transfer between work locations throughout the year, or to work remotely in months when they are out of the area (sometimes referred to as snow bird employees.)

Organizational and Employee Development Issues

The aging of the workforce brings interesting challenges to HR professionals working in the field of organizational and employee development. New or improved approaches to career management, training and retraining, and knowledge management are important techniques for addressing issues raised by workforce demographics.

Career Management

Employers need to ensure that employees at all ages and places in their career are having regular career planning discussions. Employers should avoid treating older workers differently or as if they don't have the same career opportunities as other workers.

Many older workers are interested in a new challenge or may want to continue to work, but just can't keep up with a full-time schedule. For those workers who are ready to retire, but currently cannot in light of economic conditions, employers have a different set of concerns and may need to determine how to keep these older workers from becoming disengaged and coasting to their retirement.

One strategy for counteracting "retirement in place" is to conduct career management discussions with older employees to determine whether their current role is a good fit for them. A lateral move, more flexible schedule, reduced hours or even a change of position might be appropriate given an individual's drive, lifestyle choices and interest in career challenges.

See Viewpoint: The Public Sector Needs to Invest in Older Workers.

Training and Retraining

Formerly, many employers believed that older adults were not adept in learning new skills, but researchers have learned that more advanced levels of cognitive processing actually improve throughout aging. Accordingly, employers are rethinking strategies for training and retraining employees and managers. Employers should not assume an older worker is unable or unwilling to learn a new technology or skill. Many companies are pairing younger and older workers together so that they can mentor each other. An older worker may have experience and industry knowledge to pass down while a younger worker may be able to mentor an older worker who struggles with using new technology.

Employers often find that some simple accommodations in training assist their older workers to be more successful. For example, older learners may prefer a building-block approach to learning because it permits them to increase their self-confidence while building on past learning.

Employers may also need to fine-tune other features of training delivery to make them effective for workers over 50. For example:

  • Pace. Some older adults will learn at a slower pace than their younger counterparts. Accordingly, self-paced training may allow for this divergence.
  • Seeing. Some older adults do not see as clearly as younger adults, so reading small print may be particularly troublesome. Content printed on glossy paper is often difficult to see, as are low-contrast colors such as blues and greens. Accordingly, use training materials with large print—at least 12 points in size—and high-contrast colors. Hang posters and other training materials at eye-level to support readers who wear bifocals.
  • Hearing. Some older adults may have hearing impairments and may especially have difficulty hearing soft or high-pitched sounds. Trainers should project their voice, speak clearly, reduce ambient noise and encourage anyone having trouble hearing to sit closer to the front of the classroom. Assistive listening devices are small hand-held amplifiers that can bring sound closer to someone who is hard of hearing and make a huge difference in their comfort level and participation in meetings.
  • Technology. Some older adults—especially those who have been out of the job market—may be unfamiliar with high-tech jargon, certain digital equipment and newer applications. Although older adults can master new high-tech skills, they may fear the unknown and may hesitate to ask for help to avoid being judged.


HR Can Help Prevent Older Workers from Becoming 'Tech Dinosaurs'

Adapt Training Methods to Needs of Today's Workforce

Knowledge Management

When employees retire, they take with them their knowledge of organizational history, customer relationships, evolution of internal processes and other critical information.

Knowledge management strategies for staunching the outflow of institutional knowledge may include everything from retaining older adults to more sophisticated succession planning, mentoring or job-sharing tactics, to documentation, story-telling and communities of practice. See 4 Ways for HR to Overcome Aging Workforce Issues.

Benefits Issues

The aging of the workforce will have an impact on benefits policies and practices, including health care, pension plans and caregiving.

Health Care

Health care and wellness benefits will continue to be important as the workforce ages, at least in part due to the risk of many types of illnesses and chronic health conditions that increase with age, but also because many individuals grow more health-conscious as they grow older. This could be largely due to seeing friends and loved ones dealing with health challenges or facing their own health challenges. Although HR professionals will continue to focus on selecting the best health care plans and options for employees, their task is unlikely to grow easier and managing costs is likely to be an ongoing challenge.

Retirement Plans

Retirement benefits are often among the first employee benefits that come up when the discussion turns to an aging population—especially in policy discussions involving mandated benefits such as Social Security. In the United States, the system of retirement is based on a combination of government, employer and individual programs. The Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) portion of the Social Security program is funded equally by a payroll tax on employees and employers and provides a defined benefit pension for life based on contributions over the highest-paid 35 years of covered employment.

In addition, workers who become totally and permanently disabled—a risk that tends to rise with age—are entitled to disability insurance benefits. Though millions of senior Americans rely on Social Security for all or most of their income, the benefits are considered modest. Because of this, many individuals with inadequate employer-sponsored or individual retirement savings may plan to continue to work well past retirement age to maximize their income. Any changes to the Social Security program will therefore have a significant impact on workforce participation of individuals past traditional retirement age.

See Firing of FBI's McCabe Spotlights Benefits-Vesting Issues.


One service that is likely to experience increased demand from employees in the coming years is senior care. Because individuals are living longer and the workforce itself is aging, many more employees are likely to need help providing care to adult loved ones, including parents, spouses and other family members. Benefits that assist caregivers, whether they are caring for a grandchild or an adult family member, are likely to be highly valued by many mature workers.

Employers may provide help with personal care, emotional support, financial matters, legal assistance and transportation through employee assistance programs or other delivery mechanisms. Some employers offer a sick leave bank, which allows employees to donate unused paid sick leave that is in turn made available to employees in need.

Employers also need to take care not to engage in unlawful discrimination, such as disparate treatment, against employees in connection with their caregiving responsibilities.


Once offered only in academia, sabbaticals are now being used as an employee benefit in other sectors to avoid employee burnout and to enhance performance. AARP, for example, now offers its long-term, high-performance employees the opportunity to take "Renewal"—a four- or six-week sabbatical during which the employee can take classes, travel, volunteer or just relax.


Resources and Tools

Attracting and Retaining Older Workers to Your Workplace

All Things Work Podcast: Jathan Janove on the 5 Myths of Age Discrimination

The Aging Workforce: Leveraging the Talents of Mature Employees

The Aging Workforce Research Initiative (2014-2016)