Silver Lining

Hesitant about hiring older workers? Then you're ignoring a talented labor pool.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the February 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

How many of your employees are older than you? Your current answer doesn't matter -- quite soon you'll likely report that many of your workers are older, and, what's more, you'll be singing their praises.

"Initially, it was very awkward for me to hire and manage older people," admits Jay Goltz, 42, owner of three Artists' Frame Service stores, a $10 million business in Chicago, and author of The Street-Smart Entrepreneur (Addicus Books). "But that was 20 years ago when I was 22 and everybody was older than me. It took time for me to get comfortable with managing older workers, but today, I'd guess one-third of my 120 employees are older. And I have absolutely no complaints about that."

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."

Older But Wiser

Obviously, hiring older workers needn't be damaging to your business. In fact, it may add a competitive zing to your work force. "Older workers are a very underutilized resource," contends Perry. "Most companies don't understand the advantages of hiring them."

Jay Goltz heartily agrees with the endorsements of graying employees. "Older workers are often less trouble than younger workers," he says. "They've already figured out the rules for succeeding on the job.

"So many of the 20-year-olds [I've hired] have never had another job, and from them, I often hear what I call the `f-word'--`fair.' `It's unfair that I can't park in front of the business, but the customers can.' I don't hear that kind of thing from my older workers, ever."

But, still, aren't older workers resistant to taking orders from younger bosses? That may be the big psychological stumbling block for many managers, but, says Singh, "A lot of older workers have taken instructions from bosses all their lives. They understand the role of the boss, and the boss's age won't matter to them."

Often the hang-up rests with the business owner. "The problem of managing older workers is 75 percent in your own head," says Goltz. "Show them respect, and you'll get the same back. They know who the boss is. Act like one, and you won't have problems."

One tip to defuse possible tensions, says Perry, is to try to shift attention away from the age difference. Age is just one of many things people potentially have in common. There are also hobbies, shared values and common interests. Put plainly, you may be a generation younger than Joe, but you're both San Francisco Giants fans, love hot dogs and can't wait for baseball season to start. As you focus on those shared interests, Joe's birth date will matter less and less in your mind, suggests Perry.

Make no mistake, however: Some older job candidates might grumble at taking orders from "a kid." Regardless of age, that's what interviews are for--to sort out who will mesh with the chemistry of your workplace and who won't.

Keep in mind, too, that older workers know that plenty of businesses discriminate against them throughout the hiring process. Because they want to keep their jobs, odds are, despite moments of occasional irritation that may crop up, their overall attitude just might be gratitude toward a boss who saw their potential despite a few gray hairs. "Research shows that older workers value their jobs more than younger workers. It also shows that they are less likely to quit and are more likely to stay committed to the organization," says Singh.

Can you really afford to ignore all the positive attributes older workers offer? "There are no valid arguments that older workers perform less effectively," says Singh. "They are good workers, and they want to work."

Contact Source

Artists' Frame Service Inc., (773) 248-7713, fax: (773)880-8801

Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or comments, e-mail


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