In the not-so-distant future, the key to innovation and economic longevity lies in the power of the workforce.
Mike Fitzgerald, President & CEO at the Denver South Economic Development Partnership recently highlighted the immense importance of the workforce to the economy and society at large.
But he also noted that “In March of this year, for the first time, the number of open jobs in Colorado eclipsed the number of people unemployed.”
Somewhere, there’s a disconnect. Willing workers aren’t being matched to good jobs.
For the economy to reach its full potential, we must activate every corner of the workforce, training, educating and retraining workers with the right skills to match the needs of a marketplace which has shifted radically in shadow of emerging technology.
And one of the most significant segments of the workforce that we’ll need to address in the coming decades is that of workers age 50 and over.
The graying of labor
“This isn’t a temporary phenomenon,” says Flo Raitano, Director of Partnership Development and Innovation at the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG).
And the data backs her up: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of those age 65 and older will double by 2050. Add to that data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) which predicts that by 2024 41 million people in the workforce will be age 55 and older. That will account for about a quarter of the entire workforce.
“We can’t afford to tell people who turn 65 here’s your gold watch, thanks and have a nice life. That’s not going work anymore,” Raitano says.
Through a combination of Baby Boomers who didn’t plan ahead enough, those who are still feeling the effects of the Great Recession of 2008 and improving health care creating longer life expectancy, the workforce will be continuing to work past traditional retirement ages more and more.
And for the economy to trend upwards, we need workers age 50 and older to continue to participate.
The statistics lay out it: An aging workforce is coming. And Flo adds that the urgency is acute in the Denver region.
“By 2030 in the Denver metro area, 25 percent of the workforce will be 60 and older,” she points out, citing data from the Colorado State Demography Office. “I don’t know that we’ve fully thought through how this will impact our local workforce.”
What can we do to support an aging workforce and ensure that those who need to or want to work can participate?
Age discrimination needs to go the way of the dinosaurs
Age discrimination needs to become extinct. But, unfortunately, it’s still an all too real occurrence.
Tech companies have been accused, in court, of purposefully blocking older workers from even seeing their job openings. Data compiled by the AARP shows that 49 percent of older workers say they’ve experienced some kind of age discrimination, from not getting hired to not getting a promotion and even getting fired or laid off.
And age discrimination is one of the hardest things to prove in court, thanks to a 2009 Supreme Court decision that said age discrimination requires a higher burden of proof than other types of discrimination.
Flo says age discrimination is “One of the hardest things in the world, because there can be an unconscious bias.”
Even just perception of age discrimination might be keeping some older workers from actively seeking to participate in the labor market. The truth is that we need them to participate for the economy to reach its full potential.
Developing platforms to foster labor force participation
The good news is that there are a lot of very smart people working on very smart solutions to help engage and activate workers in the 50-plus demographic.
First, Flo points out, we need to talk about it. It sounds simple, but just educating recruiters and hiring managers about this issue could go a long way.
“In many cases, the age bias is more a result of unconscious bias than blatant, outright discrimination,” she says.
To take it a step further, companies can start making applications what Flo calls “age-blind.”
“Companies can stop asking for graduation dates and ages and instead look at something like the last ten years’ worth of employment.”
We can also help older workers create resumés that don’t hint towards age but still show a wealth of experience.
Additionally, there are several local projects aimed at removing any sort of age bias and matching older workers with the right jobs.
Arapahoe/Douglas Works! has programs aimed specifically at workers age 50 and older and has been very successful. Their model can and should be replicated and disseminated more widely.
The 4GenNow initiative has been picking up steam in the Denver area. It’s a program, that seeks to improve the failure rate of startups by ensuring members of the four generations in the workforce today — Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials and GenZ — are represented in senior leadership of new startups. And data from MIT, Harvard Business Review and many others that show that startup teams that include all four generations have the highest rate of successful launches.
Older workers are essential workers
Not only are older workers essential to making the economy work, studies have shown they are often more reliable and productive than their younger counterparts.
And for Denver South, the time is now.
“2030 is the magic year,” Raitano reminds us. That’s not very far away.
And getting this segment of the workforce activated is good for everyone.
“If we can address the growing aging demographic in a meaningful way, a way that provides for sufficient income to keep seniors securely in their own homes with enough resources to not need Medicaid, it will be win for everyone,” she says.
The seeds have been planted, but we must now grow them thoughtfully to ensure a successful future for the region.