People

Modern elders: assessing the social impact of older workers

Contrary to the stereotype that having an ageing workforce will simply be a drain on productivity, there is a counter-argument that makes the case for older workers bringing the promise of positive social change

In the seemingly never-ending conversation about the future of work, older workers figure prominently. There is growing recognition that enabling older workers to remain economically productive is good for their wellbeing, good for their employers and good for the economy. But I would like to highlight another benefit older workers can bring to the table: their potential to help solve social problems.

First, a brief detour to the well-known numbers: older workers are a large, and rapidly growing, segment of the workforce across the world. In the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 25 per cent of the country’s labour force in 2024 will be 55 or older; that’s up from 22 per cent in 2014 and just 12 per cent in 1994. In the UK, the number of those aged over 70 who are in full- or part-time employment has been steadily rising year on year for the past decade, reaching a peak of 497,946 in the first quarter of this year – an increase of 135 per cent since 2009.

Challenging a traditional view

Not everyone agrees that this surge in the number of working ‘perennials’ – as this cohort has sometimes been called — is necessarily to be welcomed. A recent RSA report examining the impact of the technological age on older workers in the UK, for example, outlined four different scenarios, not all of which were positive.

But contrary to the traditional view of older workers as an unmitigated drain on resources, there is growing appreciation of what they might have to offer. First, remaining active in the workforce is good for the wellbeing of older workers. The ‘successful ageing’ paradigm holds that older workers value exactly the same things that workers of other ages do: personal security, goal achievement and occupational growth, among others.

As Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, observes: ‘People are getting to their sixties with another 15 years of productive life ahead, and this is turning out to be the most emotionally rewarding part of life. They don’t want to hang it up and just play golf. That model is wrong.’ Keeping older workers busy and happy diminishes the likelihood of mental health problems like loneliness and their attendant implications for physical health.

Raising company performance

Second, employers also stand to gain. As age diversity on work teams goes up, so does productivity and performance. Research from the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Ageing and the Stanford Center on Longevity found that older employees took fewer sick days, showed stronger problem-solving skills, and were more likely to be highly satisfied at work than younger colleagues. They also benefit from deeper knowledge, greater empathy and, above all, more time – enabling them to nurture younger workers. This is central to Chip Conley’s concept of the ‘modern Elder’.

Finally, there is an argument to be made about the benefits older workers bring to the economy itself. A 2017 McKinsey and Company report on the impact of automation for the future of work sees potential gains for the economy in the increasing demand for people in health–related occupations that will result from increasing longevity (i.e. more health sector jobs to offset losses in other sectors) and the gains will increase as the sector becomes more innovative and productive.

Source of revenue

However the developments in the health sector play out for the overall economy, it’s clear that older workers are also a huge potential source of revenue for governments in the form of taxes. A study by the UK’s Centre for Ageing Better has pointed out that halving the employment gap between people aged 50 and state pension age and those in their 40s in Britain could see income tax and National Insurance receipts rise by 1 per cent (just under £3 billion) and GDP up to 1 per cent (£18 billion), while also reducing the welfare bill.

To this growing chorus of voices who view older workers as an ‘untapped natural resource’, I would like to add a fourth potential benefit: their ability to contribute to tackling social problems. The pro-social benefits of late-life volunteering have long been recognised. But there are other ways to harness the energy and skills of older workers in the service of society.

That’s the idea behind Encore.org, a US-based organisation devoted tapping the skills and experiences of older workers in the United States for social good. One of Encore’s signature programmes is the Encore Fellowship, which places older workers in a social purpose organisation for 6-12 months. Whether it’s strategic planning, finance, change management or IT skills, these individuals are paid (via corporate sponsorship) to provide advice and input on a high-impact assignment.

Improving society

What I like about this programme is that these individuals don’t harness their expertise to help already successful, private-sector firms improve performance (although that’s also valuable and is, in fact, precisely what Chip Conley did for Airbnb.) Instead, these ‘modern elders’ are deliberately embedded within non-profit organisations seeking to improve things like healthcare and education. An impact assessment of Encore.org and five other programmes that similarly place people in encore roles found that such placements have a noticeable effect on things like raising the visibility of the charity to potential funders, as well as helping to cut costs, enhance innovation and improve service delivery.

Clearly more research is needed to assess how and where the social impact of older workers can be greatest. But I hope that as we contemplate a future of work marked by automation, AI, the gig economy and other potential disruptions, we can also see the promise that older workers can offer.

Delia Lloyd is a Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, Oxford University, on whose site this article first appeared. A seasoned writer and editor, her reporting and commentary have been featured on outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and the BBC World Service.