Managing the Older Worker

September 14, 2010

In the last century we’ve increased our longevity by thirty years. In 1900 folks lived an average of 47 years; by the year 2000 that number had jumped to 78. Although I am far from retirement age, I follow the conversation of the changing retirement laws in Germany because it fascinates me that people are forced to stop working when they hit that ‘magic number’. While they want to raise it from 65 to age 67, there have been protests in France because they just jacked retirement up to age 60.

Imagine the thought! Why, as the population ages and fewer people are born to replace them, are people being coerced to leave the workplace?

That’s where Peter Cappelli and Bill Novelli, co-authors of the newly released book, Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order, come in. They make a strong case for retaining talent and conducting smart knowledge management. After all, older folks are living longer, have more experience and, according to the authors, are motivated by different interests than their eager, younger colleagues. Dangling a promotion in front of their noses isn’t nearly as effective as giving them an interesting assignment that keeps them as a team player.

While I was slightly disappointed that the book didn’t delve into how younger managers can actually go about managing older workers, they did make a strong case for why older workers are so valuable. In a nutshell, they are:

  • more knowledgeable (no mystery there);
  • more flexible (most of them have their child-rearing days behind them; however flexibility for elder care remains an issue as their own parents’ failing health impacts their ability to maintain a regular schedule);
  • more loyal and conscientious;
  • just as costly (or not, depending on how the company views overall employee benefits).

In other words, older workers’ value in terms of knowledge and willingness to learn new things (thereby debunking the myth that people over forty somehow can’t or won’t ‘get with the program’) far outweighs any insurance cost, etc. Also notable is the fact that older workers are much less likeyl to have costly dependents so while their insurance premiums may be slightly higher, they are actually less costly in the overall scheme of things.

I thought of this today as I stood in line, waiting with one hundred other warm bodies, to buy my daughter’s last-minute school supplies. In high school, they like to tell the kids what they will need for class on the first day of school, leaving no time to prepare over a series of weeks. That means good ole Mom gets to push her way through the crowds for those ‘extra’ items she couldn’t foresee.

But back to my point: there were two lines. One had an elderly gentleman and a middle-aged woman working the cash register. The other had a younger team. One called out the price; the other typed it into the register. I couldn’t help but notice my line with the older team wasn’t moving as fast. Despite my ownership of the power of slow principles, I felt myself getting hot under the collar (literally ~all those people in such a small space!). When it was finally my turn, the woman advised me that I was buying the wrong pens. She kindly went back into the throng to get the right ones for me. She may have been slower, but imagine the amount of time she actually saved me in getting me the right pens the first time! That’s the very conscientiousness and customer care Cappelli and Novelli praised in the older worker. Amazing!

I smiled as the power of slow found its way back into my heart…and the right school supplies into my bag. Thanks to Managing the Older Worker, I will continue to view more experienced employees as the harbingers of slow because, as we all know by now, it’s faster anyway!

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It doesn’t take much, but it does take something to live a healthy lifestyle. According to a recent report by the German health insurance company DKV and the Cologne University for Sports Studies, one in seven Germans lives an unhealthy lifestyle, which is defined as having too little movement and too little nutritional care.

So how can we improve our habits? By taking it one step at a time. Literally.

Thirty minutes of exercise a day would take care of more than our share of health issues (whether in the United States, Germany or elsewhere). According to the Mayo Clinic web site, aerobic exercise can not only increase your stamina, reduce your stress and strengthen your heart, it can also ward off viral illnesses, keep excess weight off and keep your mind sharp.

In essence, movement keeps you young. Eating what I like to call ‘things from outside’, that is foods in their original state, can also contribute to your longevity.

Tell that to the younger set. According to the German report, people under 30 were the worst in terms of healthy habits with only 7.4% living a healthy lifestyle (defined as exercising 30 minutes five times a week and eating fruits and vegetables every day).

When I asked my wise eleven-year-old daughter why she thinks that is, she immediately pointed to all the high tech gadgets that keep kids distracted, and tethered, to them. In response, I handed her an apple to offset the Nutella she had just breakfasted and suggested that thirty minutes of housecleaning could replace a walk outside.

She grinned, then plopped herself in front of her computer for a half-hour.

Healthy habits start at home. It looks like we have some work to do in our own, but we’re on our way. Now where did I put that mop…?

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