Two recent retirement surveys conducted by the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies® reveal some interesting disconnects between the 1,800 companies surveyed and their 6,000 employees (see callout below).
Two-thirds of retirees say their most recent employers did “nothing” to help pre-retirees transition into retirement.
What’s going on here? Even when companies try to be “aging friendly” it seems that some may be missing the mark. Like most workplace topics, this one is complicated and there are no simple answers, but perhaps it has something to do with our cultural attitudes toward aging.
Such attitudes are reflected in an incident that occurred several years ago when I was dining with a colleague who was considerably older. Both of us were professionally dressed in a jacket and tie, and, although we were standing side-by-side, the restaurant hostess didn’t speak to or make eye contact with my older colleague. Her disregard and dismissal of him was jarring and was made more so by the fact that she seemed clueless about her behavior. Perhaps it’s no surprise that there are now reports of young people callously referring to COVID-19 as “the Boomer Remover”.
Statistics from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) suggest that these attitudes exist in the workplace as well. In 2019 there were 15,573 charges filed under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (see figure below), and the agency ordered $75 million dollars in relief, a number that does not include monetary benefits obtained through litigation. Closer to home, in Illinois nearly 22% of all EEOC charges filed last year were based on age discrimination. According to a Paychex analysis of states with the most age discrimination complaints from 2009–2018, Illinois ranked third behind Alabama and New Mexico.
The distinguished gero-psychologist David Gutmann often referenced Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that older people can be seen as the stranger, the other. Are we unintentionally distancing ourselves from older workers, seeing them as somehow different from us and making policy decisions that aren’t as thoughtful and inclusive as we think they are? We seem to spend a lot of effort to ensure that the workplace is responsive to the professional, personal and practical needs of younger workers. It’s reasonable to ask if we are doing so for our older workers.
Younger managers sometimes complain that their older direct reports aren’t upgrading their skills. Perhaps that’s a fair criticism in some cases, but how will those same young managers feel two decades from now if the pace of technological change continues to increase? It will be harder and harder to stay updated, and, in time, we may find that even 40-year-olds can’t stay current. Maybe we shouldn’t expect that our older workers demonstrate the same skills as younger employees, but instead recognize them for the unique abilities that they do bring to the table and find creative ways to harness those talents. Isn’t that part of what diversity, equity and inclusion is all about? For example, are older employees being included on teams? If not, can HR help managers identify the potential contributions of such long-tenured individuals?
Perhaps our experience with employee engagement can inform the discussion. We’ve learned that salary alone does not create engagement. Analogously, maybe our older employees need more than just a seminar about their retirement account. Maybe they need us to better understand their circumstances and acknowledge the enormity of the transition they’re ultimately facing. After all, as their employer, we’ve not just contributed to their 401k; we’ve also contributed meaning, structure and purpose to their daily lives. Imagine what it’s like trying to replace those things, especially if they end abruptly.
Forty-three percent of workers in the Transamerica survey said they would like a phased retirement, but 75% of companies have no formal program. Can you find ways to help build an off-ramp so that the transition is less abrupt? This might involve something as basic as offering flexible or reduced hours. A more ambitious arrangement would be to identify local nonprofits that could benefit from the expertise of your retiring employees. Permit them to spend a few hours visiting one of those entities to see whether it would be a good fit for them as a long-term volunteer.
Does your company provide training and development opportunities to older employees? Assuming so, it doesn’t hurt to be mindful of normal, age-related sensory changes. For example, are you subtly discouraging older employees from participating and succeeding because the materials are produced in a small font or delivered in a room with terrible acoustics?
Finally, the next time you hear a colleague refer to another employee as “that old guy over in accounting”, you might point out that “old guy” is probably not a sobriquet he would embrace nor is it likely his preferred gender pronoun. Instead, encourage your colleague to get to know that person in accounting, who might actually have some wisdom to share or at least some good company stories!
As a consulting psychologist, Larry Gard helps late-career professionals and business owners prepare for a smooth transition to their next chapter. He is the author of “Done with Work: A dozen perspectives on the decision to retire”.