Silver Lining

Power In Numbers

Chew on this: Thirty-five million Americans (13 percent of the population) are over 65 years of age, and this 65-plus group is currently the fastest-growing population group tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau. In fact, the Census Bureau estimates that this group will comprise 20 percent of the total U.S. population by 2020.

But that's just one sign of a nation that, across the board, is rapidly graying. As baby boomers continue to cross the 50-year mark and health care continues to rapidly advance, we're all living longer, higher-quality lives. The most telling statistic: The Census Bureau projects that America's median age will shift from 34 in 1994 to 38.7 by 2035, an immense jump for such a large and diverse country.

According to Gangaram Singh, a professor of human resources policy at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, if you study the statistics, the simple fact is that with current economic conditions, including low unemployment and worker scarcities, "The pool of young workers is no longer sufficient to meet employment needs."

Is that an unsettling reality? Say "yes," and you're in the majority. Most managers approach the notion of supervising workers older than themselves with sizable anxiety.

"Age is often referred to as `the subtle bias,' " says Elissa Perry, an assistant professor of psychology and education at Columbia University Teacher's College in New York City and a specialist in age discrimination. "While most companies recognize the need to address gender and race diversity and the tensions that arise [from that], few have done anything but ignore age diversity."

For its part, the federal government has already addressed these tensions. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) sets out unmistakable protections for workers 40 years of age or older. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces ADEA, spells out the law's impact: "Under the ADEA, it is unlawful to discriminate against a person because of his/her age with respect to any term, condition, or privilege of employment--including but not limited to hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments and training." That's a sweeping law, and, especially as more small businesses see an increasing number of older job applicants, it's a law you need to digest. Bumping up against ADEA can be every bit as painful (and expensive) as running afoul of the sexual harassment or race discrimination laws the EEOC administers.

The trouble is, many businesses violate ADEA, possibly unintentionally. "Many studies have shown when an older and a younger job candidate apply for an entry-level position, the younger candidate more consistently gets the job," says Perry. "That has to change."

Singh agrees. "There are many stereotypes against hiring older workers," he says, ticking off the three most common:

  • Older workers are absent more frequently.
  • Older workers are short-term employees who only stay on the job briefly.
  • Older workers are less productive than younger workers.

"None of these stereotypes are true," says Singh. "Research has shown them all to be false, but many employers entertain these beliefs, and that makes them reluctant to hire older workers."

Adds Perry: "Businesses hold more myths about older workers, probably subconsciously. For instance, you'll hear that older workers are more accident prone, but there's no basis for believing it. You'll hear older workers will not retrain; there's no evidence that a willingness to retrain has anything to do with age."

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This article was originally published in the February 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Silver Lining.

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