How to keep baby boomer workers happy

It was the early 2000s, and the so-called Internet 2.0 was just starting to take flight in Silicon Valley, with high-tech values infiltrating corporations everywhere. Many HR departments began to obsess on how to attract and retain a computer-savvy vanguard of the millennial generation–suddenly throwing around terms such as “high-energy” or “digital native” in recruiting drives that were clearly targeting younger workers.

But several hundred miles to the east in the Salt Lake Valley, Dave Walker and the company 1-800-Contacts–the leading national retailer of contact lenses–had a contrarian notion about hiring. Walker, who today is chief human resource officer at the Utah-based firm, was running the retailer’s call center and–with its traditional base of young hires nearly exhausted–he wondered if the business would benefit from hiring the over-40 crowd.

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“Our business started booming and, as we were looking to hire, I thought we could really benefit from diversity–not just ethnic or gender diversity but a diversity of experience,” he recalls. He ended up bringing in a decent number of baby boomers–who, in turn, sometimes recruited their friends by word of mouth–and saw they brought something different to the workforce at 1-800-Contacts. He says one of the best qualities of his older workers can be summed up in one word: “perspective.”

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Today, those older workers have solidified their status within the 1-800-Contacts workforce, with nearly 20% of the Utah call center’s employees over the age of 50, and about 10% in the 60-plus category. And Walker and his follow company executives are in no hurry to see them go. In fact, the retailer has found itself on the cutting edge of a trend, as HR executives increasingly ponder how to get the most out of a generation that started as a post-World War II population bubble and that, six decades later, isn’t rushing to retire.

Peter Cappelli, management professor and director of the Center for Human Resources at the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, saw the trend coming when he wrote Managing the Older Worker: How To Prepare for the New Organizational Order back in 2010. He boils his advice to people managers down to three words: “Respect their expertise.”

Asked to elaborate on the advantages of hiring older workers, he notes that, “because they aren’t in competition with each other, they are more willing to cooperate and help each other than if they were all the same age. Younger people have a lot more to learn from older people, frankly, especially about social skills and awareness.”

Millennial Missteps

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting that, by 2024, a significant 13 million U.S. workers will be over age 65, the most ever. One reason is that studies have shown baby boomers are less interested in leaving the workforce than the older generations that came before them, sometimes for lifestyle reasons and sometimes from economic necessity. And in the 55-64 age group, the current labor force participation rate of 66% is close to an all-time record.

That may be reality, but it’s a reality that arguably too many people managers had been slow to deal with. Instead, the tech boom of the 2000s and a surge of 20-something millennials who’d grown up immersed in computer culture created an aggressive focus on targeting young go-getters in recruitment and making in-house intranets look more like Twitter–paired with outside team-building events at happy hours in loud bars blasting hip-hop.

Chip Conley, a veteran San Francisco hospitality CEO who’s now a strategist for sharing-economy icon Airbnb who also writes and teaches about older workers, says he thinks that’s because “some of the most fashionable companies are tech companies, and almost all companies are trying to look like them.” For example, he cites an advertising company that sees its growth online, and so it starts aggressively recruiting “digital natives,” a term that, by definition, rules out applicants born in the era of rabbit-ear TV antennas.

But the flip side of efforts to brand an older company as “cool” to attract the most talented millennials or new college grads can be ageism–conscious or unconscious–against senior employees. Critics say this can show up in after-hours bonding through youthful sports teams, the use of terms like “high energy” in job descriptions or lavishing new technology and the training to use it on the under-40 cohort of workers.

“It often manifests itself in what I call lazy language–when somebody says that they want to cultivate a ‘youthful environment’ when what they really mean is a ‘vibrant environment,’ ” says Tim Garrett, a labor and employment attorney with Bass, Berry & Sims. He says that firms that try to recruit new workers solely on social-media sites that cater to younger job seekers can risk accusations of age discrimination.

Chip Conley, author and Airbnb strategist Photo: Lisa Keating

A backlash was inevitable. Increasingly, older workers eager to stay in their jobs have complained about missing out on opportunities for advancement or training, or simply how they were treated. In 2019, the Hiscox Ageism in the Workplace Report found that 21% of workers older than 40 complained of age discrimination in some form–the average age of the complainant was 51–and yet three out of five didn’t report it. But this same survey of 400 workers also found that about two-thirds of this older cohort plans to work past age 65–raising the stakes for HR leaders to get it right on age diversity and inclusion.


Wisdom at Work

That tension has spilled over in several high-profile lawsuits within the last couple of years, targeting some well-known tech giants. Earlier this year, Google revealed an $11 million settlement in an age-discrimination lawsuit filed by job seekers who noted the average age at the search-engine firm was just 29, compared to 42 for computer programmers in the overall workforce. The lead plaintiff was a woman with a Ph.D. in geophysics who’d interviewed and failed to get four separate jobs at Google, starting at age 47. The settlement called for anti-discrimination training but also for the creation of a subcommittee that would push for age diversity in engineering hiring.

Experts advise companies to look at their older workers not just with the narrow goal of avoiding ageism lawsuits but with the more ambitious goal of understanding how their over-40 employees want to contribute. They urge taking advantage of their wisdom and experience, within the company but also in dealing with life’s slings and arrows.

Lauren Hoeck, director of retirement for the consultancy Willis Towers Watson who led that firm’s 2018 Working Longer Careers Survey, says more employers are realizing that managing an older workforce is increasingly about understanding which employees are eager to retire–and what they need financially and in terms of support to make that happen–but also which ones are still highly motivated, and how to keep them engaged.

Lauren Hoeck, director of retirement for Willis Towers Watson

“Ideally, you can have one-on-one conversations with everyone in your organization,” Hoeck says. She says these discussions will help both the employee and the company in “assessing where you are in your journey and what your goals are.”

Cal Halversen, who studies later-life employment as an assistant professor at Boston College’s School of Social Work, says studies suggesting that workplace performance diminishes for older workers should be reexamined “to ask whether that’s because of age or whether opportunities to be productive have not been given to them.”

Airbnb’s Conley, who just turned 59, in recent years wrote a book, Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, and even launched the Modern Elder Academy with a one-week training session for older workers interested in becoming better coaches or mentors. He’s personally mentored more than 100 executives at the San Francisco-based firm, including CEO Brian Chesky, and he’s pushed ways for Airbnb to better tap into boomer sagacity.

They include the creation of the Wisdom@Airbnb employee resource group of over-40 workers–similar to groups around in race or gender at the firm–which, in turn, has urged the company to make some decisions that go against Silicon Valley’s normally youth-oriented culture. These include scrapping a plan to move reservations primary to its mobile app, after they found that women over 50–the fastest-growing demographic of Airbnb hosts–weren’t comfortable with that change.

A Path Forward

More broadly, Conley sees getting the most of over-40 workers as “helping them to understand that you actually want them to be curious and to develop their learning and development skills–and to continue to invest in them.” He and other experts offered a number of tips on how to help boomers in the workplace thrive:

Encourage flex-time or part-time work: Whether it’s to pursue outside interests or deal with needs such as taking care of elderly parents, many senior workers crave flexibility. Conley says that’s a win-win–employees working fewer hours save the company dollars, yet have the wisdom to make the most of their reduced time. WTW’s Hoeck also notes some managers may want to switch roles, to end their career in a more creative or performance-oriented job. Additionally, some firms give experienced employees more flexibility with how they spend their work hours–such as Google’s “20% time” for engineers to work on their own experimental ideas that might help the firm grow.

Include an age breakout in employee-satisfaction surveys: Conley says that most employee surveys are broken out “by tenure, race, gender €¦ but we don’t do it for age. What would the age demographic show about what [older workers] like or don’t like about the company?”

Encourage employee affinity groups for workers over 40: Old-line consumer-goods giant Procter & Gamble Co. has established “mastery groups” in key areas such as sales and R&D, as well as HR, for experienced workers to mentor newer employees and spotlight best practices. Other firms are finding the value of making sure that project teams in areas such as product development include at least one veteran worker, to gain from their experience of past successes and failures.

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At 1-800-Contacts, Walker says, reaping the benefits of an age-diverse workforce has meant some adjustments. For example, he found that intensive training for new employees on using the firm’s technology–conducted over two fairly grueling eight-hour days–took hold better with workers in their 50s and 60s when it was broken down into what he called “bite-sized” segments of roughly three hours or so.

Yet Walker has become an evangelist for the idea that hiring older workers makes for a better-functioning company. That’s especially true for an online-retailing firm such as 1-800-Contacts, where the experience of knowing how to interact with people can trump knowing how to interact with machines.

“There are some areas where college students struggle,” he says, “where our boomers have amassed a lifetime of experience.”

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Will Bunch
Will Bunch is a freelance writer based in the Philadelphia region who writes on human resources and other business topics. He can be reached at [email protected].