Myths surrounding the mature worker

Martin Katz, JVS Coordinator of Job Placement

The objective of this article is to dispel a series of myths surrounding the mature worker and identify the benefits to employers of hiring these individuals, generally described as persons 45 years of age and older.

One of the main problems for mature persons to find positions in the job market is the myths that exist with potential employers about this segment of the population.

Among these myths are:

  • Mature workers demand higher salaries due to their experience.
  • Mature workers cannot adapt to change.
  • Mature workers aren’t motivated.
  • Mature workers cannot learn new technical innovations or refuse to learn.
  • The mental and physical functions of mature workers are not sufficient.
  • Mature workers will be a financial burden on a company’s health plan.
  • Younger managers look upon mature workers as a threat to their careers.

In the last 20+ years there has been a significant loss of jobs in the U.S. due to off-shoring and other economic factors. However, demographics tell us that there will be a severe labor shortage in the coming years. At the same time, the percentage of workers 50+ years old will constitute 30% of the workforce. So it will be advantageous for employers to shed the innate biases that might exist and seriously consider hiring (or retaining) the mature worker. Studies have shown that the concerns noted above have no basis in fact:

  • Many mature workers will accept lower salaries than they earned in their younger years, may not need medical benefits due to continuing benefits from a previous job, and may be willing to work part time schedules – all of which can actually save an employer money.
  • Mature workers can, in fact, adapt to change, and many thrive on variety.
  • Mature workers want to work – some because they wish to remain active and many because they need the income to meet financial obligations.
  • Life long learning is a goal for many mature workers, who seek continued mental stimulation and the opportunity to remain intellectually challenged.
  • Regular physical exercise can keep physical capacity nearly unchanged between the ages of 45-65, and a lack of appropriate exercise can make a 45 year old worker less fit than his or her active colleague aged 65 years.
  • The actual functions of information processing change very little in the course of one’s career. Some cognitive functions such as control of language or the ability to process complex problems in insecure situations, improve with age.
  • From the point of view of work life, the most important changes in mental functions are related to the weakening of precision and the speed of perception.
  • In most work tasks, speed and precision can be substituted by the high motivation of aging workers and the experience and wisdom they have amassed throughout their work life.
  • Many mature workers have done the “management thing” when younger and no longer want or need to compete for top level positions.

There are some organizations that are beginning to recognize the advantages of hiring the mature worker. A large drugstore chain claims that without mature workers they wouldn’t have a company. In the past ten plus years, the company has doubled its “over 55” workforce, which now represents 16% of the company. Internal surveys showed that mature workers called in sick less often than their younger colleagues. Mature workers are often looked upon as being “overqualified” rather than “fully qualified.” Employers are reluctant to take a chance on such candidates, because they assume these individuals might become bored on the job and look for a more challenging opportunity. They may also appear to be too expensive or likely to intimidate their younger colleagues. These conclusions are also faulty.

There are many advantages to hiring mature workers:

  • They can be “quick studies.” Based on their years of experience and skills, many mature workers can readily learn new tasks and quickly contribute to a company. In addition, employers often can save training time and costs.
  • Mature workers can act as mentors to younger employees, which can aid in succession planning.
  • Mature workers can save a company money, because many simply wish to remain active and engaged in the workforce, contributing to a company’s productivity, as opposed to chasing the dollar.

In a recent study, key findings about the 45+ workforce have been identified:

  • Workers 45+ want to continue working and want viable work options later in life.
  • 84% said they would work even if they were financially set for life.
  • 68% identified being productive as motivation for wanting to work.

As new jobs are created, the workforce shortage will become more apparent and challenging to hiring organizations. Amplifying this problem is the overall change in the nature of the “job.” In our post-industrial economy, the very nature of work has changed. We no longer have jobs for life; telecommuting is becoming more commonplace, as are job-sharing and flexible work schedules; and project work assignments are becoming more the norm. No doubt, the greatest resource available for supporting the new work economy is the abundant source of mature workers.

This article is based on the white paper “Why Maturity Works,” published in December, 2004, by the Maturity Works Subcommittee of the Morris County (NJ) Chamber of Commerce Council for Strategic Human Capital Management. The author of this article was a member of that sub-committee and a contributor to the white paper. A copy of the full white paper is available from the author upon request by writing mkatz@jvsnj.org.