Turning our aging society from a burden to an asset


Each year, the World Economic Forum publishes its Global Risks Report, which aims to outline the biggest threats that society will face in the coming year. The 2022 edition features many common sights, including failed climate action, extreme weather and loss of biodiversity. Such catastrophic events often succumb to the so-called availability heuristic, whereby we are naturally drawn to things that are familiar to us. In the case of the type of threats posed in the Global Risks report, these are all risks that are commonly featured in the media, so perhaps take on added prominence in our thinking accordingly.

One threat that has never been mentioned in all the years the report has been published is the declining birth rate, but it’s enough of a risk for Elon Musk to call it a greatest threat to civilization at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council Summit.

Nowhere is this more evident than in China, where the population is set to decline for the first time since the famine of 1959-1961. This is due to a drop in the fertility rate to 1.15 in 2021. They are far from alone, however, with Australia and the United States boasting fertility rates of 1.6 and Japan of just 1. ,3.

Attitude to age

Although Musk’s concerns have an existential element, in the short to medium term, this means that our societies will age considerably. This comes with many challenges, but nowhere more so than in the workplace.

This is especially the case in the technology sector, which has long had problems with agism. For example, Facebook faced a few lawsuits in 2017, Google paid $11 million to more than 200 job seekers in 2019, and IBM was embroiled in a civil case this year over the portrayal of older workers as “baby dinosaurs”. However, they are far from being the only ones and the data of Stack overflow shows that the average age of developers is between 22 and 29, with less than 7% over 45.

It would be nice if we weren’t in the midst of a general talent shortage. While the “big quit” was driven by younger workers in its early days, it is currently being driven by older, more tenured knowledge workers, with older worker quit rates increasing by 34% in the last year.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that UN figures suggest there will be around 30 million fewer people of working age in the world’s five largest economies. That Total Jobs reveals that 80% of us are largely unaware of this impending labor shortage doesn’t calm the nerves either.

Aging society

With the aging of societies, this represents a real opportunity to reverse the trend. For instance, to research of the European Commission suggests that the “silver economy” will be worth 5.7 trillion euros by 2025.

This potential also exists in terms of manpower. To research from the International Longevity Center highlights the strong potential for a “longevity dividend” supported by greater productivity as we age.

However, this rarely translates into public discourse, which tends to see aging as a burden, as large numbers of people retire and stop contributing to society, while collecting pensions and demanding higher shares. important in health care. This perception is aggravated by difficulties in raising the retirement age or reducing the rights of the elderly.

Joseph Coughlin of MIT’s AgeLab perhaps summed it up best by saying that longevity was “the greatest achievement in human history and all we can say is that going to bankrupt Medicare?”.

To capitalize on this potential, we need to rethink what it means to age, as report of the Government Office for Science in the United Kingdom demonstrates this so well.

“As the population ages, the UK workforce is also aging. The UK’s productivity and economic success will increasingly be tied to that of older workers,” the authors explain. “Allowing people to work longer will help society support growing numbers of dependents, while providing individuals with the financial and mental resources needed for longer and longer retirements.”

Fix our view

Such a future, however, has many challenges ahead. For example, research from the University of Gothenburg highlights the stereotypes faced by older workers, as they are expected to have difficulty processing information, less interest in technology and that they generally find it difficult to learn new things.

This then affects the performance of older workers, with to research from Georgia State University highlighting how negative stereotypes undermine the physical and mental performance of older workers, so that stereotypes become self-fulfilling.

It is perhaps no great surprise that to research from the University of Basel finds that such an environment makes older workers feel excluded from the labor market.


Of course, these stereotypes are not based on any real evidence. To research from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics points out, for example, how older people are just as capable of learning new things as their younger peers. The study finds that people who are about to retire are just as interested in learning new skills as their younger peers, even if they don’t strictly need to.

Similarly, there is no evidence that older people are less creative or enterprising. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Recent to research from MIT and Northwestern University highlights how older entrepreneurs can often be more successful than their younger peers.

Research reveals that under-25 entrepreneurial success is as rare as a less-spotted unicorn. Success rates then increase later in your 20s and don’t even decrease in your 50s. Indeed, the authors note that the average age of startup founders in the United States is a veritable 41.9, with the fastest-growing startups being founded by entrepreneurs with 45 years under their belt. Additionally, a 50-year-old entrepreneur was 1.8 times more likely to achieve strong growth than a founder in his 30s.

What else, to research from Flinders University highlights how older workers are often key to surviving the kind of turbulence we are currently experiencing.

“Mature adults show considerable resilience,” the researchers say. “The resilience aspect of role models has a particularly strong influence on young workers. This includes mature coping strategies, emotional intelligence and empathy – and these attributes have never been more important in the job market.

An age-friendly workplace

To research from the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University explores how organizations can encourage older workers to stick around long enough for this knowledge to be retained. The analysis revealed that the type of work environment was essential, with autonomy, information sharing, a range of development opportunities, participation in decision-making and good compensation and benefits. characterizing the type of environment that attracts older workers.

This was built by a second studyfrom Massey Business School, which involved a survey of almost 1,250 New Zealand workers over the age of 55, and four key factors emerged to help organizations retain and engage older workers:

  1. Offer more flexible working arrangements
  2. Train managers and recruiters to identify and overcome potential age biases
  3. Promoting a more positive attitude towards older workers, especially among senior managers
  4. Provide mentoring programs between older and younger workers

However, this can only be achieved if HR departments change their mindset and start to appreciate the huge asset that older workers can represent in today’s workforce.

“We need HR departments to realize that the best opportunity to develop their talent isn’t in college, but rather in retirement,” said Chip Conley, founder of the Modern Elder Academy. “We also need to recognize that if we treat older employers as if their learning and development ends before the age of 40, it’s no surprise that we have older employees who aren’t as curious, so we have to learn to invest in long-term employees.”

The older workforce can clearly be an asset, especially as we weather the storms we are facing right now, but if we are to realize that asset, we will need to rethink our assumptions about older workers and actively work to break down the many stereotypes. they confront.


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