Changing the workplace for retirement-age boomers

September 29, 1998|By Barry Dym

THE AMERICAN psyche is riddled with contradictions and confusion about aging and retirement.

As a people, we are living longer, healthier lives. Yet U.S. businesses urge early retirement to unload the burden of highly paid workers -- even as companies suffer from a shortage of talented managers.

As a culture, we have come to believe in early retirement almost as a birthright. A broad array of social forces -- from social workers to gerontologists, labor unions to the advertising industry -- market a positive image of retirement. Consequently, many people do end their work lives early to seek the pleasures of family and travel, golf and gardening.

Unfortunately, many of them find themselves culturally almost disenfranchised, living lives that seem to lack meaning.

Baby boomers, having seen their parents face such problems in early retirement, are balking.

According to a recent study by the American Association of Retired Persons, or AARP, 8 out of 10 Americans born between 1948 and 1964 expect to still be on the job after age 65. Compare that with the roughly 1 in 10 (or 11.8 percent) of those over 65 who held jobs last year.

Almost 2 in 5 workers of the baby boom generation agreed with the statement: "I can't even imagine myself retiring." How could they? Aside from the fear of growing bored and irrelevant, the young-old won't have enough income from pensions and Social Security to retire in anything close to the style they might have imagined.

Yet it is increasingly difficult to remain at work in satisfying and productive ways. Rather than design jobs for workers in their 50s, 60s and 70s, or provide training to those who want to expand their skills, corporations seem content to lose many of their best and brightest. Corporate literature on career development reveals the bias: for workers over 50, almost none exists.

Many older workers, left on their own, come up with personal solutions.

Bridging the gap

Thousands find or create part-time jobs that bridge the world between full employment and retirement. Others start their own companies. Still others become higher-paid consultants to the very companies they had served. Those options are fine, as far as they go, but they are no substitute for a workplace -- and a culture -- that values the continued, full-time participation of senior workers well into the years now thought of as retirement time.

At the heart of the problem is how we wrongly look at age. We don't yet know the distinctive capabilities and casts of character that distinguish the 50-to-75 age group.

Research is beginning to provide answers. One study, Healthy People 2000, found that 84 percent of Americans over 45 (including 78 percent of those between 69 and 74) indicated that they were not limited for health reasons in the amount and type of important activities they could perform. Those who work are the healthiest of all.

Another study tells us that workers between 55 and 65 are as healthy as those between 45 and 55. They don't get sick any more often than younger workers, they report to work as reliably and they perform virtually all physical tasks with comparable ability.

What about the idea that people slow down mentally? Longitudinal studies show that, unless a person has suffered a serious health problem such as a stroke or head injury, most of us sustain our intellectual functioning well into our 70s and beyond.

However, direct comparisons with younger people may be beside the point.

Measuring older workers only by the standards of youth inevitably favors youth. The flaw in this form of measurement was dramatically pointed out by Carol Gilligan, a Harvard University professor and pioneer in gender studies, who contends that the theories produced by such gurus of psychology as Sigmund Freud were not theories of human development at all. They were theories of male development. Men are different from women and they mature differently.

The ideal man is not the ideal woman.

Likewise, in the workplace, older people are generally measured by standards that make them look less adequate, primarily by emphasizing physical stamina and mental quickness, not depth and complexity.

Shouldn't the measures include their experience, their personal and political savvy, their wisdom? What about their capacity to take the long view, to keep small setbacks and slights in perspective? What about their ability and inclination to nurture younger workers, so long as they aren't placed in positions to directly compete with their youthful colleagues? What about many other capacities and casts of mind we have not yet associated with corporate productivity?

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