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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 8, 2003

Older workers newly valued

By Henry J. Holcomb
Philadelphia Inquirer

For the growing number of people who need to work deep into their 60s — or who flunk retirement, get bored and want a job — things are looking brighter.

With the baby boomers approaching retirement, more will be leaving the nation's workforce than there are young people to replace them, creating worries of a critical worker shortage that could enhance the value of old-timers.

"In the old days, when people in their late 50s hung it up, companies would go to college campuses and recruit more. That's going to become more difficult for many," said John Carney of the Carney Group, a firm in Blue Bell, Pa., that specializes in recruiting and placing older workers.

In 2008 there will be 34.1 percent more workers in the 50-59 age group than there were in 1998, and 15 percent fewer workers ages 25-40, Carney said. In 2002, more than 1 in 8 people older than 64 were working or looking for work, the Census Bureau reported earlier this year.

Cashing in on positive aspects of this change requires preparation — for both maturing workers and the companies that seek to employ the best of them, Carney and others said.

For workers, that preparation includes learning how to live in a world of Blackberries and e-mail on the go. Staying up to date on technology is critical to fitting into changing companies with fewer secretaries and technical staffers who come running when there's a problem, they say.

Attitudes often must change, particularly for those who were used to being the "No. 1 dude" but are moving into a less-demanding role, said Patrick Sylvester, chief executive of Bannister International, a Philadelphia executive search firm.

As one gets older, networking continues to be one of "the top things you do," said Gayle I. Weibley, an executive vice president at Right Management Consultants Inc. world headquarters in Philadelphia. "You must set aside a couple of hours a week to keep yourself out there in the market."

She also said it is important to recognize that future opportunities for aging workers are governed by "perception as opposed to what they can do. So they must change things they can change that influence perception, and not worry about things, like age, they can't."

While corporate survival often means hoarding information and playing things close to the vest, older workers fare better when they learn how to mentor younger colleagues, how to be a person they come to with problems they don't want to take to the boss, Carney said.

Companies also have some adjusting to do, according to Weibley, Carney and Sylvester. Many will need to change policies related to retirement, pension benefits, locations and hours.

And they will need to create ways to retain older workers without holding back the advancement of younger workers eager for promotions.

Most companies, consumed by today's problems, are not yet focused on what's ahead, Sylvester said.

They are facing a "double whammy," Carney said. The soon-to-retire baby boom generation was the product of much higher-than-usual birth rates, and the generation entering the work force was the product of lower-than-average birth rates.

It may turn out to be a triple whammy. Younger workers are increasingly seeking alternatives to working for big corporations, "which they see as very cruel places to be," said Mike Johnson, a British author who recently interviewed 200 senior executives in the United States and Europe on workplace issues.

Also, corporate America's recent tendency to promote people with highly specialized backgrounds to high positions has left them with a critical shortage of broadly experienced managers who know how to get things done, Sylvester said.

He said retaining older workers would help offset an acute shortage of people who can sell an idea to colleagues and customers, balance the need for profits with customer satisfaction, have credibility in their fields, and have a track record for getting things done.

American workers and companies can learn from Japan and China, which have held older workers in high esteem for many years, Johnson said.

The experts say it is important for older workers to be realistic about their career paths.

As soon as it becomes apparent that you are no longer interested in a top-tier job — or that high positions have become unattainable — it is wise to change course. It is far better to step off the ladder than to be pushed off, Sylvester said.

"Ninety-five percent of people don't want to be a vice president or CEO," Johnson said. "They just want to be valued."

People can enjoy life more once they've quit seeking upward mobility and created or found special projects or other roles where they can have value, Sylvester said.

Older workers can be valuable to startup companies as well as established concerns that have been forced to shrink management ranks and support staff during recent hard times. "They (older workers) are apolitical, so they become terrific role models," said Carney, whose firm has been placing older workers for 11 years. "They need little or no supervision. And they've seen most kinds of projects at one time or another."

The importance of older workers will continue long after the boomers pass through retirement age. As Johnson, the British author, put it: "It is an increasingly messy world. People are getting married two or three times, and having two or three families," so worries about orthodontist bills and college tuition payments will keep coming later in life.