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Why We Need to Recalibrate Our Sense of “Old”

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

On his 80th birthday, Hugh Hefner said “80 is the new 40.”   In an article last summer, Sunset magazine proclaimed “100 is the new 70.”   Author and CEO Bill Byham titled a 2007 business book  70: The New 50. The numbers are fun, but so far, it seems in terms of the way we see it as a culture, 50 is still “old.”  We need to revisit that.  We are shooting ourselves in the collective foot big time.

The dictionary lists nine different definitions of the word “old.”  When we talk about “old” people, are we talking about “worn” or “experienced?”   Our continued success as a society hinges on which we choose.  Because 50 is not “worn” so much as polished.   We are throwing away really good stuff–and then paying to keep it somewhere else.

Seventy percent of the physical problems we blame on aging are actually the result of lifestyle choices.  It’s not your age that’s keeping you from doing that bike ride.  It’s that you haven’t walked farther than from the couch to the refrigerator in the last five years.  Excusing our bad habits with our birthdays is a downpayment on a long gloomy death spiral.   Most of us are going to live to 80.  Thirty years of assuming we can’t do what we want because we’re “old” is pretty tragic.

Businesses who assume 50 is “old” are squandering some of their best talent, too.  Instead of helping  the experienced workforce get comfortable with new technology, they look for ways to usher them out the door.  Instead of building multi-generational teams that capitalize on the full range of talents and skills available, they shove the experience in some corner where the younger workers can’t learn from it.  They literally watch needed expertise walk out the door into retirement without ever asking, “Any way we can get you to work for us on a more flexible basis?”

A recent issue of Wired magazine included an article about taking your job on the road–in your RV.  It wasn’t written for “old” people.    But it sure looks like a good marriage of “retirement” and staunching the experience drain.  The irony of the current business mindset is that while companies continue to assume that experienced workers want traditional retirement, they are creating flexible work arrangements to attract Gen Y workers as their replacements.  The “new kids” want  to work when they want wherever they want, responsible only for the end result rather than showing up every day.  It’s called ROWE–results only work environment.    To offer such options to new, inexperienced workers–who probably won’t reach the level of productivity the older workers have for ten years or maybe much longer–and NOT offer it as an alternative to retirement is painfully short-sighted.

As a business, there may also be room to retain the experience you already paid to develop in creative ways that take less than a full time salary to accomplish.   This is a tight labor market, yes.   But it’s also the perfect opportunity to try some things while the pace is a little slower.    How can you marry new technology with old savvy to get the best bang for your labor buck?

And then there is the little matter of government entitlements.  When someone retires, they go on everybody else’s payroll, via FICA taxes.  Social Security comes out of our collective wallets, not “the government’s.”   So when we expect people to be “old” and to retire around 62,  we buy in on taking care of them, in terms of Social Security checks, for an average of about 18 years.

Most  people retire in good health.  They are still capable of doing great work on something in which they believe, particularly if it’s a customized arrangement.  Instead, the invisible wall of ageism goes up around them.  The culture assumes they are washed up, worn out, and useless.   We pay them to “get out of the way” when they weren’t in the way in the first place.  And once they’ve retired, we make re-entry into the labor market, even if highly qualified, damn near impossible.  It’s like we are afraid “old” is contagious.

And it doesn’t stop there.  Once people start being “old,” they buy in on the stereotype.  They need more medical attention.  Much of it wouldn’t be necessary if these capable people could remain engaged.  But when the only person who’ll talk to you is your doctor, you talk to your doctor.  Once Medicare is part of that person’s setup, we are all pay the bill.

We need to revisit when “old” starts.  I’m voting for somewhere around 95 or maybe 98.  Many of us can keep going all the way to the day we die if we just have the opportunity.  People over 50 have a lot left to offer and a lot left to do. As a culture, we need to give them the chance.