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Leon Kaye headshot

Older Workers, America’s Most Undervalued Asset

By Leon Kaye
Older workers should be a valued resource that too often fall under the radar; yet they also comprise a large part of our entrepreneurial culture. 

Older workers should be a valued resource that too often fall under the radar; yet they also comprise a large part of our entrepreneurial culture.

There’s constant talk about millennials and the value they offer companies – as well as chatter about the risks these same businesses could face in the U.S. if they do not effectively recruit and retain this rapidly growing demographic of workers. Plenty of this discussion has occurred here on TriplePundit, as our writers and guest commentators have been reminding readers about how this generation of workers generally seeks work-life balance, a job with purpose and a working environment in which they are assured their employers are giving back.

As corporations step over each other in the stampede to show they are millennial-friendly, while conference stages are packed with speakers declaring that millennials are the future (last I checked, every current generation in history eventually became the future), there’s a demographic that is overlooked, under-appreciated and too quickly dismissed.

Older workers are also a valued resource that too often are falling under the radar.

The definition of “older” runs the gamut. Plenty of workers in their late-30s have felt shunned as our culture glamorizes youth at the expense of wisdom; we’ve all seen those corny “Over the Hill” napkins at a 40th birthday party; and then there are gasps when the 100-year-old works on his or her birthday, as Millie Feasel of Columbus Ohio did recently at a hardware store at which she has been an employee for almost 60 years.

Bias, discrimination and dismissal directed at mature workers has much to do with how older people are portrayed in popular culture and in our everyday vernacular. But our assumptions about older generations often overlook what a vibrant part of the economy these people hold – and if valued, will contribute even more to the business community and society.

For example, we often associate entrepreneurs with youth – images of Mark Zuckerberg in a hoodie or Elizabeth Holmes (ahem) in a Steve Jobs-ish black turtleneck, not someone with silver hair in pinstripes (or vintage OP shorts), can account for part of this bias. But again, that snapshot of entrepreneurship in our brains obfuscates a simple fact: one-quarter of entrepreneurs are in that 55-64 age bracket, according to ongoing research by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

What can account for these numbers? To start, look at the economic fluctuations these workers have endured.

When millennials insist on gaining work-life balance the way in which they perceive older workers have already achieved, that wish is a misfire for a very important reason: many within the over-50 crowd have not yet reached that point, either. The boom and bust cycle of the past 40 years has forced many Americans to create their own payrolls rather than count on being part of one.

Older workers, many of whom are still working when we are quick to assume they have neared retirement age, still remember the recession of the early 1980s, as plenty of them witnessed their young careers derailed while unemployment reached double digits. The good times eventually rolled on through the 1980s, but then recession hit a decade later as the U.S. tackled its mounting national debt. Leapfrog another decade, and we had the double whammy of portfolios hit by the circa 2000 dot-com crash and then the economic hit after 9/11. And we all remember the fiscal crisis of a 2008-2009.

Therein lies another trigger for this rise in entrepreneurship for older Gen X and younger baby boomers; many had to forge their own career path as companies were increasingly reticent to hire them. Being laid off at age 30 is a temporary setback. At 40, it presents a massive challenge. When we hit 50, such an event means it is time to think out new ideas, as knocks on company doors will go largely unanswered. A pink slip at 60 can be catastrophic, as that worker is too young for Medicare or Social Security and a resume won’t even cross a human resources manager’s desk.

I’ll add another reason why older entrepreneurs are coming into their own.

As a former colleague recently reminded me, “Quite frankly, there’s no substitute for experience.”

If America’s companies truly want to show that they are leading on diversity and employee engagement, they would be more than wise to instruct their HR departments to remember those words and view those pre-2000 dates on a resume as not liabilities, but as valuable assets.

As Chris Farrell recently shared on Fast Company, “America has passed a significant inflection point when it comes to experienced workers and mature entrepreneurs creating a more welcoming economy and labor market. Experienced workers are no longer obsolete.”

Image credit: Pixabay/Rawpixel

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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