What If the Workplace Had More 70-Somethings? Because It Will…

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This topic contains 43 replies, has 15 voices, and was last updated by  Corey McCarren 8 years, 2 months ago.

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  • #164942

    I was just reading an article from noted generations expert Jeanne Meister in which a recent survey of nearly 1,200 workers found that more and more people are expecting to work into their 70s! Here’s an excerpt:

    The number of working people age 65 and older reached an all-time low in 2001, when just 13% held jobs. Now that rate is rebounding, and the number of workers older than 65 is 18% of the workforce.

    Seventy-seven percent of baby boomers (between ages of 48 and 66) said they believed they would work into their 70s. What is surprising is that 82% of Gen Xers (between ages of 36 and 47) agreed.

    I don’t know about you, but I think that would have *huge* implications for our workplace:

    • Will 70-somethings be able to keep up with the pace of change – not because they are incapable, but simply because it is very different from the pace of their primary working experience?
    • What will training look like to keep people’s skills sharp — and would the investment be worth it?
    • What kind of roles would we have them play?
    • Are they driving on the freeway toward advancement or sitting in a parking lot waiting for an opportune moment to leave the car?
    • What are the implications for cost as these workers are likely paid much more than their younger colleagues?
    • What happens to the leadership pipeline? Will up-and-comers be forced to wait even longer to climb the ladder to a desired position?

    I could probably come up with 4 more questions — and I don’t mean to be pejorative with any of my comments or questions above — but this is something worth considering as it’s likely to be a growing reality.


    If you are interested in this topic,
    I would also encourage you to check out the
    “GovLoop Guide to Workforce Planning”

    that we just released in the last couple weeks.

  • #165028

    Corey McCarren

    It seems like government — at least back in my homestate — is trying to push potential retirees out. Do you think government would even allow this to occur?

  • #165026

    Mark Hammer

    Let’s put a different spin on this. Speaking from the vantage point of someone who, barring health issues, will likely BE one of those:

    – Will their insistence that, actually, things work just fine thank you very much, with the tools and technology we presently have and there is no need to purchase the latest cool thing you saw demoed in a magazine or at a trade show, drive younger employees batty because they can’t get new toys?

    – Will their indifference to “career advancement” lead them to say things in meetings that younger career-conscious employees wouldn’t dare say publicly, or make decisions that younger people would be risk-averse to?

    – Will there be mechanisms for “wisdom transfer” and productive pipelining of institutional history? Will the organization now have a memory and stop re-inventing the wheel every 20 weeks?

    – Will we have to begin imagining the employee who doesn’t actually need “training” or a learning plan because they have mastered the job?

    – Will we have to work harder to maintain their engagement because “at my age I don’t need to put up with this arrogant narrow-thinking nonsense from folks who were getting some silly diploma or non-thesis masters from an on-line university when I had seen 8 organizational transitions and finessed the change-management stemming from 6 pieces of agency-related legislation” or can say “That’s the same dumb crap my grandkids try and pull”?

    Sometimes, just sometimes, one has to think about the older worker like the person who has some idiot riding their bumper at 80mph for the last mile, and finally moves over a lane to get the kid in the pimped-up pickup truck off their tail. Are they too slow to be on the freeway, or the only one who is likely to get home unscathed?

    And remember, Andrew, the undercurrent of impatience running through your questions is the tone of someone who believes that they’re going to rise quickly and leave the workforce triumphantly at 57. If you knew that you were going to be working through to at least your late 60’s, your expectations of career progress, and perceptions of what is impeding that progress, would be different.

    The “timetables” (see Bernice Neugarten) of contemporary life are changing…again.

    I, for one, welcome competent people with wrinkles. 🙂

  • #165024

    Peter Sperry


  • #165022

    Touche! 🙂

  • #165020

    P.S. Note from the article that this is not just an issue in the present. Gen X’ers feel like they will be working well into their 70s, too. This has implications for decades to come!

  • #165018

    Mark Hammer

    Thanks, Peter. Much appreciated.

    I’ve been spouting this for over a decade. The general pattern of more grey in the workplace is largely driven by a few things (besides anti age-discrimination legislation, demographic shifts, and issues stemming from the mortgage crisis):

    – more people are migrating towards knowledge work, and other forms of employment where physical stamina or speed is not a critical factor, making them able to remain in the workforce;

    – demands for higher education in the workforce oblige people to commence their entry into the workforce later, deferring many life-stage related decisions and expenditures to later in their lifespan earnng cycle (my youngest will finish undergrad when I’m 67);

    – present consumer expectations for adults of all ages tend to result in less savings, and greater operating costs at what was traditionally retirement age – those cruises cost money, you know.

    The result is that a significant chunk of the populace will continue full-time, or substantial part-time, participation in the labour-force past pensionable age because they can, and because their consumer/life-style expectations require it.

  • #165016

    Steve Ressler

    I think the leadership pipeline will be interesting. Part of my question is will the leadership then stay in top position for 20+ years or will 70-somethings potentially want to keep working but in less leadership positions. Anecdotally, I’ve seen examples of this where 70-somethings still want to work but perhaps not at the 24/7 pace of a senior leadership role. Will agencies be set up to allow this? Will it be perceived as a demotion / how do we fix that? Not a perfect analogy but think of team sports where often an athlete peaks mid-career as the star but still wants to play and can add a lot of value for years (from specific key roles to leadership in locker room) – but the key is the later stage athlete is no longer the #1 option on court.

  • #165014

    Mark Hammer

    It may even lead to a re-imagining of what leadership positions are. Certainly, some of the 65+ employees will be admin support, officer-level, and such, but some will be middle and upper-middle management who are squandered by confining them to a single work-unit with a vertical power arrangement, and all that paperwork. Maybe we need to cultivate “Lone Rangers”, who can be free-floating internal consultants; a different sort of SME.

    I know from a survey of executives I saw several years back, a significant share indicated they would happily defer their retirement longer if they could be in roles to help shepherd their organization through anticipated transitions.

    I think that speaks to my earlier comment about rethinking engagement, and what employees at different ages and career stages may need to feel like their presence and effort is justified. The Eriksonian principle of “generativity” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erikson's_stages_of_psychosocial_development ) comes to the foreground here.

  • #165012

    Ah, Mark – hold up one second. 🙂

    – “…speed is not a critical factor.” <= Isn’t the rate of change accelerating? As a Gen X’er, I feel like I can’t keep up at times with my younger, Gen Y colleagues (and I used to think I work pretty fast)!

  • #165010

    Shaq! Sometimes just having greatness in the locker room and on the bench inspires others to greatness…but that can get expensive fast, eh? Especially in the case of government, where folks can retire and get an amazing pension, then come back and double dip…and that doesn’t even include Social Security they’d be drawing (though admittedly, I know very little abou how SS works if someone decides to say in the workforce).

  • #165008

    Mark – Have you heard of Fed Cloud?


    These kind of folks would seemingly be great candidates.

  • #165006

    Faye Newsham

    I’ve worked with an 80-something in the IT field previously. He was on his third career and had been in computers the WHOLE TIME! This was over 15 years ago… so you know he has seen some serious change. When I left that position he was eagerly taking courses to learn Java on his own time… He was not management, didn’t want to be management, and I couldn’t tell you what his salary was… but he was engaged, engaging, fun to be around, and willing to take the time to explain things. He was one of my best subject matter experts (SMEs). As I was a technical writer with little IT background (at the time) he was willing to take the time to explain what was going on, what it all meant, etc. He was a natural-born teacher and enjoyed what he was doing. As long as he was able, he was going to work on whatever they would let him do. This does NOT mean that every 70+ is going to be great at the role he or she makes for themselves. Many of us are driven by different motivations and some of those will have to change as we get older or we may not be happy in what we do. The more unhappy we are the more likely we are to retire. My dad intended to be one of those guys who dies at his desk… but the effort to keep pace and not take downgrades (not to mention dealing with ageism in lots of subtle ways) wore him out and angered him until he took his ball and went home.

    I guess the upshot is that each of us has to have a game plan in mind on how to deal with the eventual changes… if you want to be a CEO… how long can you do that before someone younger and cheaper is around? Do you want to take a pay cut to do what you do? Can you work a shorter work-week and take a cut in pay to get less recognition? Will you want to take classes to keep your skills current? Do you like to mentor folks? I’m thinking there has to be a questionnaire someone could invent (I’m thinking on the scale of the famous dating website’s form…) that could help us all figure this out for ourselves (and our industries). Can I get my counselor from high school to give out an aging aptitude test to help me figure this out?

  • #165004

    Joe Flood

    There will be no meetings after 3 PM 😉

    But, seriously, I’ve worked with people in their 70s before. There are plenty of jobs that require the wisdom, patience and experience that older people have. For example, you’d want your agency leadership to have those skills. They don’t need to keep up with tweeting or anything else. They need to concentrate on the big picture and not be distracted by the ADD world of social media.

    These older employees are also the keepers of an agency’s culture – they reinforce what is good and discourage the bad. They teach new employees what the agency is all about and hopefully maintain ethical standards.

  • #165002

    Mark Hammer

    Interesting, though I am always skeptical of both anything that touts “the best and brightest” (they don’t exist), and any HRM ideas that comes from an accounting firm that then comes in, Arthur Anderson style, and audits how you conduct your business. Doesn’t bode well for avoiding conflict of interest.

    I also don’t cleave to the idea that one should be able to just migrate to “where the work is interesting”, because all work, just like all parenthood and all sex and all food, is both interesting and chock full of drudgery. But certainly the idea that public institutions subsidized by the same tax base ought to be aware enough of their own internal capacity to be able to assign that capacity where it’s needed is immensely attractive. I suspect that few organizations are that self-aware, however.

  • #165000

    Mark Hammer

    I meant speed in the sense of reaction time, and in service of the Henry Ford-style assembly line. Reaction time slowing is one of the few truisms in gerontology. If we’re talking about a job in a bagel bakery cranking them out at 2 seconds per bagel, that’s one thing But that’s not government work for the most part. Even when it does involve reaction time, as Tim Salthouse at Georgia Tech has amply illustrated in his work on older typists, task expertise easily compensates for age-related reaction-time slowing. Older typists whose reaction time for non-typing skills shows the predictable age-related slowing still go like blazes at the keyboard.

    I might also add that frenetic speed at the inconsequential may be impressive, but it’s still inconsequential. And government should be involved in the consequential, right?

  • #164998

    Ignore all that stuff, Mark. That cute kids video may have thrown you off. 😉


    The core take-away from the concept, as relevant to this conversation, is that we’ll have all these Boomers (retired and semi-retired) on the ready with experience and know-how. Make them the inaugural strike force of the “Fed Cloud.”

  • #164996

    Robert Bacal

    First things first. You can’t project anything about the workforce based on this data. Survey data is pretty poor unless it’s been validated to behavior. What respondents believe has very little to do with what will happen, because there are so many factors that are uncontrollable.

    For example, some estimates (decent research) is that about 10% of Canadians suffer from some degree of dementia, and of course there are other mental disabilities that people in their 40’s and 50’s aren’t “planning to have”.

    Then there’s the physical issues, cancer, heart disease, stroke, etc that will take out another bunch of these respondents.

    Then comes the various disabilities like arthritis, other mobility affecting illnesses, that may not force older people out of the workplace, but can make it difficult enough to manage that they would choose to shut it down.

    Also, people in their 40’s and 50’s have quite different values and priorities than those older than 70, and it’s very hard for younger people to know what they will do when they are in their seventies.

    So, It’s NOT likely to happen. We simply have data that isn’t being interpreted well.

    That said, it’s a fascinating question, even if what you mention doesn’t happen. Good stuff.

    PS. If ;you asked me three years ago if I would ever totally retire (I’m 58), I’d have said no. In the last months, my wife and I have started thinking about a more complete retirement. Let’s face it. We just don’t know until we get there.

    If I was still working for government and they had their usual call for volunteers to leave (and receive a beneficial settlement) I would be gone in a flash.

  • #164994

    Robert Bacal

    What? You’ve never heard of the Facture De Bagel Nationale run by the Quebec government? It’s an attempt to keep bagels from Montreal culturally pure by having the government set standards for the market.

    Ask for Les Bagels White rather than:

    The white bagels.

    You know. It’s a language thing.

  • #164992

    Robert Bacal

    Me, I’m waiting for a company to be honest, and tune their claims to match the job.

    Looking to hire:

    Factory worker to do repetitive work on assembly line and sew cushions. Looking for the fast, the dumb, and the dense, because nobody else succeeds in this horrible job.

    Apply within: We good payers.

  • #164990

    David B. Grinberg

    Nice post, Andy — very timely and significant. The U.S. is just part of a larger global demographic shift in which older folks will soon outnumber young people. As you note, this will mean more older people in the workforce, as the statistical trends already indicate. For more on the worldwide demographic shift in the older population, see http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/international_popu….

    So what does this mean for the workforce? As you state, this major trend will have important implications, which I believe will be positive overall in the long run — that is, once younger workers accept and adapt to this new reality. Older workers should be highly valued for a number of reasons. Studies by AARP and other orgs have shown that older workers are very productive and motivated, have less absenteeism, are willing and able to learn new technology, and also have key workplace institutional knowledge.

    Thus, it will be interesting to observe the increasing dynamic of how younger and older generations get along on the job. Many older workers will likely be managed by much younger supervisors, thus there may be issues on both ends. One of the big problems continues to be age discrimination in employment. Older workers too often are subjected to negative stereotypes, myths and fears that amount to age bias (or ageism). Age bias charges filed with EEOC against private sector employers have exceeded 20,000 cases per year since 2008. To learn the legal facts about age discrimination at work, see http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/age.cfm. It’s unfortunate that age bias stubbornly persists in the 21st century, especially because the Age Discrimination In Employment Act became law in 1967 (protecting those 40 years of age and older). Bottom line: in today’s competitive global economy, all employers must compete for the best talent — regardless of one’s age. Employment decisions must be based on merit and ability to do the job, not on discrimination or other non-work criteria. As I like to say, age is just a number. Again, thanks for the great post.


  • #164988

    Mark Hammer

    Phyllis Moen, formerly at Cornell and now at Univ Minn, does some nice work on retirement and planned workforce departure from a lifespan perspective. Plans and reality don’t always line up perfectly. Recommended. http://www.soc.umn.edu/~moen/PDFs/Embedded%20Career%20Clocks.pdf

    I still hasten to remind people that pension and pensionable age was never originally planned as a demarcation between workforce participation and full withdrawal. Bismarck’s original offer of pension at age 70 (and then age 65) was merely a bonus for a lifetime of (continuing) service to the fatherland. It was only several decades later, when unions started to push for mandatory retirement as a bargaining chip with employers, that public pensions began to rise to a level that anticipated inability to obtain work after a certain age. (That is why it is called “Social Security”, kids; because it was intended to be there for you in case you could not get a job because no one would hire you). After 5 or 6 happy decades where pension became the boundary between full and non-participation in the labor force, and a substitute for earned wage, its new emerging role is that of unyoking occupational choice from fiscal necessity. That is, it allows people to continue participation in the labor force, but on the terms of their choosing. Pension subsidizes choice of paid work that might not pay top dollar, or that pays well but has risky feast and famine cycles. The rise of (non-physically demanding) knowledge work and the service sector, as well as the manner in which the internet has facilitated cottage industries and the capacity for niche businesses to reach distant markets, permits that to happen. For those in blue collar work, they tend to still follow the older script: work until you reach pensionable age, then leave and never look back.

    There is always the possibility that various social or economic upheavals or events will change things, but at present, the emerging pattern is that more folks are remaining in the labor force after pensionable age, especially if they are educated. As governments everywhere begin to grapple with the link between pensions, labor force, economic competitiveness, and national debt/deficit, we can expect to see public pensions shrink a little or pension-related expenditures reduced in some manner (my own country is moving the start-point of one of the age-related benefits programs from 65 to 67 in the not too distant future). I guess the irony is that, in the same way that inablity to get work after 65 gradually nudged the size of public pensions upward, opportunities for late-life employment may well play a role in relaxing the obligations government feel with respect to public pensions. I.E., if you’re working part-time anyway, this oughta be enough for you to meet your needs with. I don’t say that with any cynicism or bitterness. Things change, and governments adapt, just like economies and people do.

  • #164986

    Mark Hammer

    🙂 Here we enter the realm of culturally arcane knowledge.

    And yes, there ARE only two kinds: “white seeds” and “black seeds”. All else is heresy.

  • #164984

    Kevin Lanahan

    I’m eligible for state retirement in 5 years. I won’t be anywhere near 60. I fully anticipate leaving government, but will need to continue to work for 20 years or so.

    Will I do cutting-edge work? Probably not. But there is always work to be done. I may work part-time, or buy a bike shop or work in a bakery or something, but it will probably NOT be in a field where today’s technology is obsolete tomorrow.

    We have some women working in my office who retired years ago (they are in their late 70’s or early 80’s), but are happy to come in a few days a week to do some filing, answer the phones and be around people. They are wonderful to work with, and are a constant reminder that we are always useful as long as we want to be.

  • #164982

    Bill Brantley

    Given the advances in medical science, nutritional science, and better learning techniques now and in the future – being 70 in 2020 or 2030 will not be the same as being 70 in 1920 or 1930. The key is to keep learning and staying curious. Research has shown that with just a little training, older brains can match younger brains in performance.

    In fact, not only could aging brain handle the pace of change they may be more innovative than younger brains.

    “Research details a number of ways in which the brain actually improves with age. And what’s even more interesting is that many of these advanced abilities correlate with key conceptual elements of innovation and creativity.”

    Another quote I like from the CNN article:

    “In his book, ‘Major Issues in Cognitive Aging,’ Timothy A. Salthouse, professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Aging Laboratory at the University of Virginia, writes, ‘Although there is no shortage of opinions about cognitive aging, it sometimes seems that relatively few of the claims are based on well-established empirical evidence … assertions about cognitive aging may be influenced as much by the authors’ preconceptions and attitudes as by systematic evaluations of empirical research.'”

    To me, the biggest advance in the workplace is the eradication of prejudgements about our fellow workers.

  • #164980

    Mark Hammer

    I doubt that medical science, nutrition and better learning techniques will produce a 70 year-old qualitatively different in 2030 than they did in 1930. I hasten to remind people that much of what we have learned about “life-extension” over the past 40 years often came from octogenarians who were the creme de la creme of their generation, and at that late age hardly representative of humanity. Where many of those born the same year as them died at a young age, in the absence of inoculation, proper food safety, decent prenatal nutrition, and presence of multiple cources of challenge to their health (often from others who were also not inoculated), these folks survived in spite of all. I’d be reluctant to generalize from whatever success we’ve had with these uber-specimens to those of somewhat feebler, less selected, generations like my own.

    The biggest influences will likely be education and work history, rather than anything medical. Those two are obviously interlinked and have huge impacts on health, inteligence, and personality. If you want to know what the 70 year-old of 2030 will look like, look at the 70 year-old of 30 or 60 years ago who had a graduate degree, maybe had a blue collar job for a summer or two as a youth but spent much of their life in decent living conditions, with little work-related physical challenge to their health, and often only their own bad habits to punish them.

    I had the pleasure of working in cognitive aging research for a number of years, and meeting hundreds of seniors for testing purposes, as well as engaging in some of the first “use-it-or-lose-it” research ever published (we found no support for this much-cherished hypothesis). Educated healthy people were generally the sharpest for their age. Whether they were different in some manner from the get-go is hard to say, but certainly we know that individuals describable as “high verbal” tend to fare extremely well in later life.

    The brain doesn’t really improve with age, but certainly what it does can get better organized and efficient, or at least maintain efficiency, despite clear challenges and biological sources of decline. My favorite example was a guy in his late 70’s I was testing in the lab. We were running our volunteers through some “working memory” tasks where they had to mentally juggle multiple pieces of information. On just about everything I ran him through this fellow did as poorly as his age-mates, and much worse than our college students. But then I got to a number task where we’d read out a string of 3 numbers, which the person had to mentally add up and keep in their heads while we read out the next string of numbers, gradually increasing how many consecutive strings they had to juggle. His age group was getting about 2.5/10 correct, while the college students were around 8.5/10. This fellow gets about 8 or 9 correct. My curiosity now piqued, I just had to ask him what he did for a living before he retired. “I worked in a stock room.” he said. Everything else was going to hell in a handbasket, but his capacity to efficiently work with numbers was unimpaired, presumably because memorizing inventory numbers was something he had done hundreds of times a day for years on end.

    Practice makes durable, and often indestructible. That is why, of course, even on our death-beds, when we are otherwise idiots, our capacity to speak and apply all the rules of grammar we acquired, remains unimpaired.

    Is there stuff seniors can get better at? Sure. The capacity to reason abstractly is often a function of the corpus of information one has amassed about a subject. Abstract reasoning ability does not automatically occur with age, but it takes time and experience to amass such knowledge. And of course, if you live long enough, the paradigm for doing certain things will have likely changed several times, so not only do you have more factoids about an area, but have also been able (or obliged) to think about it in very different ways over your lifetime. Helps to be curious, though.

    Ghisela Labouvie-Vief at Wayne State has also identified the capacity for older adults to think in more “dialectical” fashion, and frame subjects/problems in terms of a dialectical framework where the balance between two mutually exclusive and opposing forces lies at the heart of a solution to a particular challenge. Dialectical thinking, in turn, is the sort of thing that requires amassing a great deal of knowledge about an area so as to be able to infer such higher-order “forces”.

    Personally, I have little doubt that the presence of seniors in the workplace will be a good thing, but that is separate from whether their presence is judged that way by their juniors. The millenials may be utterly convinced that the narrow paradigmn they view the world from is the only sensible way to think, because it’s all they know, and may rankle at the suggestion by seniors that the current paradigm is simply something that failed 40 years ago, dressed up in new clothing. The tendency for the populist management literature to put blinders on, encourage their wearing, and keep rebranding things we’ve always known in new buzzwords certainly doesn’t help matters.

    I had the honour of cornering Tim Salthouse in my office in the mid-80s, while he was waiting to chat with my supervisor, and quizzed him about his “meta-model” of what he thought cognitive aging consisted of (I was no less arrogant then than I am now). He may have since changed his mind, but at the time, he was convinced aging was akin to a central computer clock slowing down, so that fewer processing cycles and instructions could be carried out in the same amount of time. Of course, as he notes in the quote, such assumptions may be only preconceptions, and not supported extensions of empirical research.

    (Note: I took the day off today, which partly explains the length of this post. My verbosity explains the rest. 😉

  • #164978

    Mark Sullivan

    Thanks for raising this issue Robert. I agree that there may be a big difference between intent and reality. Over the last several years in my state, we have seen a gradual rise in actual average retirement age, peaking at 62.8, with the ell curve dropping off steaply after that. It’s not surprising that this coincides with eligibility for certain federal health care benefits. I thing it will be important to closely watch what happens with select economic factors (e.g., government pensions, health care costs) in order make accurate predictions.

  • #164976

    Mark Sullivan

    A couple of other thoughts to add to the mix…

    My interest was piqued by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent article on the choices women (and now more men) face between home, academics, and career. While historically, a traditional individual’s career progression rate may have peeked in thier forties, other societal changes may change this, which may impact anticipated/ actual retirement age.

    Along a similar vein, I wonder whether shifts in the composition of the typical household ay change retirement dynamics. I’m not just thinking of the traditional head(s) of household, who are supporting children and elderly parents. Rather, I wonder whether we will see a shift to ‘grandparent head-of-household’ where the granparent(s) is the primary wage earner for a family where the adult children are getting advanced degrees or certifications to participate in a knowledge economy at the same time grandchildren are attending grade school. It wasn’t that long ago that multi-generational working households were the norm. Maybe they will be again.

    Finally, my belief is that organizational life is becoming increasingly complex, with the need to organize efforts across organizations, jurisdictions, and sectors becoming a necessity. My understanding of current research is that older workers may not be as adept at acquiring new knowledge, but they do tend to excel at building connections across disparate bodies of existing knowledge. That alone may be sufficient for employers to pay a premium to hold onto seniors.

  • #164974

    Bill Brantley

    @Mark – Thank you very much for your fascinating reply! I would love to hear some more about your cognitive aging research at one of the GovLoop meetups. I must admit that my evidence behind my assertions are secondhand but I do believe that recent advances in neuroplasticity and neurogenesis research along with the fascinating field of connectomics may actually help brains improve with age. Maybe I am bit overoptimistic and naive but I do appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

    Where we fully agree is in your following statement:

    “Personally, I have little doubt that the presence of seniors in the workplace will be a good thing, but that is separate from whether their presence is judged that way by their juniors. The millenials may be utterly convinced that the narrow paradigmn they view the world from is the only sensible way to think, because it’s all they know, and may rankle at the suggestion by seniors that the current paradigm is simply something that failed 40 years ago, dressed up in new clothing. The tendency for the populist management literature to put blinders on, encourage their wearing, and keep rebranding things we’ve always known in new buzzwords certainly doesn’t help matters.”

  • #164972

    Hope OKeeffe

    Sorry, this article is a prime example of my one complaint about GovLoop in my response to the recent survey — its persistent ageism. My generation (and the one before it) is no more monolithic than yours (or the one after it). I’m really, really sick of the stereotyping, and you young whippersnappers better get off my ^%^%$* lawn.

  • #164970

    Hi Hope – Thanks for that feedback and I do not mean to be offensive (and for any offense caused, I apologize). Perhaps I should put a disclaimer with these kinds of posts that says, “I am not in anyway trying to denigrate a generational cohort. Rather, my only goal is to raise issues for constructive dialogue that improve the workplace.”

    In asking those questions above, I am not trying to insinuate that those attributes are true of an older generation, but positioning the issue in such a way that a healthy debate can ensue. I have found that if I ask the questions in a “safe” way, we do not get as robust a conversation…but when I can push the debate to one side as a rhetorical device, I am able to generate the kind of back and forth you are seeing in this string.

    Make sense?

  • #164968

    Mark Hammer

    Thanks, Bill.

    During grad school I had the pleasure of attending an intense week-long series of seminars given by Nobel Prize recipient Roger Sperry ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Wolcott_Sperry ) to a group of theoreticians on mind-body dualism. Sperry said something which stuck with me. Given the topic, and the assumption that, being a neuroscientist, he would opt for a reductionistic biological approach, Sperry replied “You don’t explain the behaviour of a rubber ball by looking at the structure of rubber molecules. You explain it by the properties of balls.” He was perfecty at home with opting for “mentalistic” and cognitive approaches to explaining the mental phenomena of interest if that level of explanatory constructs did the job. Sometimes, and some things, demand appealing to biological reductionism and the workings of cells, cellular connections, and molecular biology. But a lot of things don’t. You pick the level of explanation that serves the practical purposes. Not that neuroscience work should be ignored, but in the case of the intellectual functioning and reasoning of older adults, you can go an awful long way without neurophysiology, by simply exploring knowledge acquisition, the development of expertise, and the structure and use of knowledge bases. Neuroscience would have nothing to say about the anecdote I related of the fellow whose capacity to mentally juggle numbers was preserved because of his work history.

    All too often, the folks working in the more medical and biological end of things are only minimimally informed about that stuff. I learned that in spades when I did my M.Sc. on memory-enhancing drugs. Much of the research came from folks who knew a lot about the cells and molecules that were surely needed for memory, but knew nothing about the human act of remembering, and how people accomplish it.

    One of Sperry’s colleagues and contemporaries, and the head of the department of my alma mater, (and my hero), Donald Hebb, also cautioned against what he called “neurologizing”: the attribution of mentalistic concepts to neural structures, and then using neurological research to justify the constructs. I didn’t really grasp what he meant by that until I picked up a book on frontal lobotomies from the early 1950’s that had a cross-sectional diagram of the brain and a label/arrow pointing to part of the frontal lobes that said “Guilt”. It strikes me that there is sometimes an uncomfortably common thread linking the way society currently employs neuroscience research, and the Social Darwinism of the earlier part of the 20th century. The history of much of that is nicely detailed in Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin’s lovely little book “Biology as Ideology” (1991), a striking treatise on the manner in which research agendas and paradigms are shaped by, and serve, unspoken social agendas.

    I’ve referred to the history of pensions and retirement several times. It strikes me that, as pensionable age has historically come to connote the boundary between “useful” and “useless” humans within western society (i.e., those put out to pasture that no longer have a place in the labour force), there has been a flavour of attempting to vindicate or redeem older adults, and hence older workers, in research, both cognitive and neuroscience. As if the demonstration of neuroplasticity, and especially dramatic and surprising forms, is needed to “explode the myths”. Of course all of that ignores the ongoing reality of the self-employed, like store-owners and farmers, whose participation in the labour force continued unabated, in the absence of 401ks, unions, etc., and whose daily tasks required as much effort, expertise and cognitive capacity as most of the jobs of people who frequent this site. No need to demonstrate neuroplasticity or provide vindication from the laboratory there; it’s neuroplasticity that’s been growing your damn food for centuries!

    One of the more interesting research and methodological challenges this has led to is the role of the “null hypothesis” in aging research. As you may recall from your university days, one’s typical strategy in conducting and analyzing research is to refute the null hypothesis. At its most basic level, the idea being that if I have condition A and B, I want to show that the data comprised by condition B are different from those of condition A, taking probability and chance into account, as well as design and possible causation. My goal is to say there IS a real difference. In a lot of aging research, with the unspoken agenda being one of “redeeming” or vindicating the elderly (thus justifying their rights, participation in the labour force, political views, etc.), the goal is often to demonstrate that there is NO difference between older and younger adults, or that a small intervention can eliminate differences. The methodological challenge that creates is that it is easy to demonstrate no statistical difference, simply by engaging in sloppy research with small samples and poor measurement. Use low statistical power in your work, and probability says you will have to accept the null hypothesis most of the time. Put another way, if your stopwatch only measured in minutes, and not seconds, 90 year-olds would always run the 100yd dash as fast as 20 year-olds, every time: in a minute. That’s not an aspersion I cast on the entire field. Rather, it is an extra burden that requires the field to be particularly vigilant, and to turn to things like meta-analysis (where the results of many smaller-scale studies are pooled to form a “super-sample”) in order to draw strong inferences. Confidently demonstrating NO difference is a very different sort of approach to research.

    Much of the field of cognitive aging seems to be converging on the idea that we are looking at inter-individual differences in intra-individual change. That is, the aggregate age trend is comprised of people who show little or no age-related change over their lives, and people who show more, with some of the change positive, and some negative. The research agenda, then becomes one of understanding and explaining why age changes happen to some people and not to others, rather than assuming age has a common monolithic impact.

  • #164966

    Hope OKeeffe

    of course, just engaging in some curmudgeonly chain-yanking. It’s one of the perks of age.

    Here at the Library of Congress, I’m still one of the young whippersnappers myself; average employee tenure is in the 25-year range, and people with 40 year pins aren’t uncommon. The Librarian himself is 83. This institution is a living example of the principle that a workforce over 70 doesn’t necessarily mean a workforce retired in place. It might be an interesting case study.

  • #164964

    Ha – I am an equal opportunity chain yanker.

    Good call on looking more at an agency with a higher average age to see what one might learn…

  • #164962

    Linda Oestreich

    Well said, Mark! I am quite seriously looking at working until my 70s…and I know that there are things that I don’t do that the younger, more aggressive folks can and will do (work long hours, strive to be the front-runner, etc.). BUT, I bring a sense of calm and wisdom to my team, I mentor everyone–including my bosses for the most part–and I love adding value. I see the holistic view of the work and help folks hurdle the inconsequential setbacks that happen every day. Life and work are important to me, but I try to keep them balanced and I encourage my workmates to do the same. As to technology, I am far more comfortable with office technology than most of my teammates–many of whom are far younger than me!

    I love all of the “Will” statements in your note…and had you not already said them, they were to be in my message. Now that you’ve shared them, all I can do is give a great big “DITTO.” I believe that there is room for all of us in the workplace…the sharing of talents, wisdom, and experience can only make a workplace stronger than it was. I love this thread! Thanks so much for beginning it, Andrew, even if your original message seemed to lean toward keeping all us codgers out of your hair! 🙂

    Keep up the good work, GovLoop!

  • #164960

    Bill Brantley

    Fascinating paradox about the rate of change accelerating. In some cases, going slow so that your ideas gain acceptance to a critical mass is necessary for change to succeed. The Slow Pace of Fast Change.

  • #164958

    Bill Brantley

    Yes, there seems to be a “neuromanticism” among the social sciences that is leading to some unwarranted conclusions. My research areas are communication theory, behavioral economics, mental models, and organizational behavior. I try not to jump from the behavior of a few neurons to a full-blown theory on how to persuade people with communication acts but the temptation is there because the neuroscience research is fascinating. I remember reading an article that referred to fMRI as “high-tech phrenology.” So your cautions are well-warranted. I will especially have to remember your “neurologizing” example.

    Great conversation although I am not sure this is what Andy had in mind. 🙂

  • #164956

    Bill Brantley

    @Andy – I think it does! I’m glad there is a forum where provocative questions can be raised and people can, in a respectful and well-informed fashion, consider the questions. This is the best way to break through the many stereotypes that seem to pervade government work (in my humble opinion).

  • #164954

    Mark Hammer

    We now return to the thread, already in progress! :-

  • #164952

    Mark Hammer

    Maybe the question to ask is “What if YOUR agency had more 70 year-olds?”. What impacts would you foresee?

  • #164950

    Hope OKeeffe

    An important step towards sensible integration of older folks into the workforce: Congress included language creating a new program for phased-in federal retirement in the compromise bill covering student loans and highway funding. Under the new law, an employee, with the consent of his or her agency, can opt to phase into retirement, collecting a reduced pension while continuing to work part-time. The retirement annuity of an employee under phased retirement would be reduced proportionally by the amount of time working. If an employee works half-time, he would get half his pension; if he works one-fifth of the time, he would get four-fifths of his pension. A phased retiree would continue to accrue pay raises through step increases, and a partial annuity would be increased by the standard annual cost-of-living adjustment.

    When a phased retiree enters full retirement, his or her pension would be recalculated to consist of two parts: first, the full annuity earned before entering phased retirement, only no longer reduced to account for a partial work schedule; and second, a partial pension accounting for the phased retirement period, which would take into account the additional time worked and any pay raises received during that time. Both parts would be added together to calculate the final pension.

    [This is all second-hand so I can’t vouch for its accuracy.]

  • #164948

    Mark Hammer

    While phased retirement is a wonderful and eminently sensible thing, one of the operational and strategic challenges it poses is that of identifyng, and possibly reconfiguring, jobs to accommodate a partial presence. There are plenty of things a person can do well, showing up 3 days out of 5, or mornings only, but not everything can work that way. Do they need to be present for impromptu meetings? Are the tasks assigned to them the sorts of things where they need to collaborate with others? Can they have leadership roles at any level if they aren’t around all the time?

    None of these are reasons to throw one’s hands up in the air and declare phased retirement unworkable, but they are practical considerations that would either reshape the nature of the retirement phasing, who could take it within the context of their job, and how the work and lines of reporting might need to be re-organized for the unit and agency to get its work done. Otherwise it starts to become a bit like a perpetual summer, where one is stymied at every turn because “so and so isn’t here today/this week”..

  • #164946

    This seems to me a situation generated by necessity, since so many have lost savings in the recent economic crisis. It will also be common in the private sector. The question I have is since there frequently can be a preference to hire younger people, will older people be included in requirements for diversity in the workforce?

  • #164944

    Mark Hammer

    VERY good question.

    I guess some of the data that will be summoned in the inevitable age-discrimination court challenges would be average post-hire tenure of different age groups. If you think about older workers as “they’re just going to retire soon anyways”, but the average post-hire tenure of a 67 year-old is 5 years, compared to 3 for a 27 year old (please note that I’m making these numbers up), then a case could be made for a finding of age-discrimination in hiring. Of course it would depend on how age-discrimination, and protections against it, are defined in law.

    Keep in mind that diversity is often broached in terms of access to jobs and entering the workforce, rather than being able to remain in it. I’m not saying that is a basis for legitimately discriminating against older workers, but to my mind it would apply a slightly different jurisprudence lens to it.

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