We Need to Rethink Aging at Work

Claudio Garcia Article

Every time Charles Eugster looked in the mirror, he did not like the body he saw.

According to Charles, vanity rescued him. He decided to take up bodybuilding and a few years later started competing in 100-meter race events where he became the world record holder in his age category and developed a new career as an author, speaker and employee at one of Germany’s largest health club chains. What makes all this story amazing is that Charles was 87 years old when he started his new career. In a recent article he left an important message: "Society needs to do more to engage my peer group and to not waste our talents and knowledge.”

Charles is correct. According to a recent study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, more than 20 percent of high-tech patented inventions were applied by people over the age of 56, a number similar to inventions patented by those under 35 years of age. Therefore it is a false assumption (reinforced by the success of a few young tech entrepreneurs) that young people tend to be more innovative. Research also shows that essential skills in today's world of work such as productivity, learning ability and dealing with change are as good among older people as they are for younger ones, again challenging long held stereotypes which often inhibit the hiring and development of older people.

And when you consider that the populations of the world's major economies are aging (and living longer), the importance of rethinking aging can have a positive impact on society. Let’s think first about the economic ones. Living longer requires more financial resources to cover future expenses. Most public retirement pension systems are not sustainable and already impacting the sustainability of many economies. In the US, 1 in 3 Americans have no retirement reserves. That is the apocalyptic perspective. A different, more positive perspective is that working longer in life means increased financial resources in the economy; spent on consumption, or when saved become investments creating new jobs. Studies show that billions of dollars could be added to global GDP if working life is extended. Many deny this effect through the long-held myth that keeping older workers reduces the possibilities of hiring young people (the famous lump of labor fallacy) and therefore limits economic growth. However, it has been proven that the added value to the economy of longer careers benefits the wages and employment of younger employees. That is, prolonging careers can be an excellent driver of economic growth. Many surveys also show the negative effect of retirement on the welfare and health of the retiree. After a first encouraging stage (one to two years), retirees have greater physical problems with daily activities, become sicker, have more mentally illness and depressed than those who continue to work, even part-time. In other words, continuing to work reduces or postpones health problems and reduces the use of health insurance and services (an area that is also struggling with an aging population).

To make this a reality much has to change in public policies and business practices, which do not reflect the current ageing reality, but are stuck in a world that no longer exist.

Age prejudice is a major constraint. In some countries, Brazil for example, recent research shows that age prejudice in private companies begins for professionals in their forties. That represents an enormous waste of talent and with it tremendous the economic, social and human potential. Pension reforms around the world have been the main theme of discussions regarding ageing at work, but they’re too focused on negative aspects, such as the loss of social rights, as oppose to the benefits of a productive aging workforce.

It not just important for companies and governments to change their mindset, practices and policies on aging workers, people themselves must change their mindset and attitudes towards aging. Charles Eugster comments in his article that "we older folk need to do more to reinvent ourselves too".

Charles passed away on April 27 on the verge of turning 98. His left a powerful message for us: "It is time to start a revolution that isn’t aging but pro-aging." The necessary social and personal transformations are enormous, but the benefits are even greater.

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