It's no secret that delaying retirement has become the go-to strategy for Baby Boomers scrambling to shore up their finances in the wake of the financial crisis. Yet the big question is whether business will be receptive to keeping older workers around, let alone hiring them as the economy recovers. The standard perception is that older workers are a drag on the bottom line, sucking up health care dollars, keeping younger workers from advancing, and mailing it in for the last few years. Not so fast, say two Wharton academics. In Silver Tsunami: Why Older Workers Offer Better Value Than Younger Ones, they poke a few big holes in some of those common myths.
As someone who has written my share of posts warning that older workers may have a tough time pulling off their work-longer strategy, I was heartened to see some pushback against the dead wood theory of older workers. Here are three reasons why your boss should want you to keep working past age 60:
1. Older workers are less of a drag on health care costs than young parents. Peter Capelli, who runs Wharton's Center for Human Resources, points out that older workers typically are no longer carrying kids on their health care plan (yes, the new health care reform act allows parents to keep their kids on the plan until age 26, but let's agree that's a short-term nod to the rough job market for Gen Y right now.) Moreover, employers who keep workers on past age 65 can see their health care costs dip considerably once those workers become eligible for Medicare.
2. Older workers have a great work ethic. One of the most damaging misperceptions about older workers is that they stop putting in the effort and expect to coast the last few years on the job. As persistent as this image is, it's been refuted in a series of studies that consistently show managers find plenty to love about older workers. In an Urban Institute study, managers gave the graying portion of their workforce the highest marks for loyalty, hard work, and reliability. Wharton's Capelli adds that older workers have lower absenteeism and better communication skills with both colleagues and customers. "Basically, older workers perform better on just about everything," says Capelli.
Well, not everything. In that same Urban Institute report, older workers lagged their younger co-workers when judged on creativity and taking initiative. Note to Baby Boomers: show up and engage in those brainstorming meetings you think are sort of pointless. And stop giving lip service to getting your tech skills up to par; the Society of Human Resource Management reported that nearly half of managers think older workers have subpar tech skills.
3. Older workers are good for the economy. Boomers have heard the whispers that their determination to stay on the job is creating a traffic jam on the corporate ladder: Younger workers can't get hired, or promoted until their parents' generation vacates the upper rungs. But Olivia Mitchell, director of Wharton's Pension Research Council, and one of the most respected retirement policy thinkers in the country, says that's simply not the case. She points out that when workers retire early, governments are stuck with big pension costs that eventually cause them to raise taxes, "which causes employers to scale back hiring or pay workers less." As 60 Minutes reported recently, the pension liabilities of many state governments indeed looms as a huge headwind for economic growth.
Don't Stop Saving
As I said, all of that is welcome news that pushes back against some all too common misperceptions about the productivity and utility of older workers. But I wouldn't take this as an excuse to relax on saving up for retirement. The fact is, while you may want -- and fully intend -- to keep working well into your 60s, that may not be how things play out. Data from the Employee Benefit Research Institute shows a consistent trend that roughly 40 percent of Americans end up retiring earlier than they expected, for reasons both personal (illness, caring for someone else, etc.) and economic (layoffs, closures, etc.)
That's an argument for stuffing as much as possible into your retirement accounts today, rather than assuming you will indeed be able to work longer. What's the worst that could happen? If you end up with an enlightened boss who does want to keep you on the job longer, you'll be in a position to make the choice based on desire, not need.
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