90 Is the New…

With people living longer and healthier, firms are struggling with how to assess a once dismissed demographic.

When Pete DuPré first got his harmonica, the United States was going through one of its worst economic downturns in history. No, it wasn’t 2008. Or the tech bust earlier. This was the Great Depression.

Decades later, DuPré has made news, becoming a viral sensation at the age of 96 after performing at the recent US women’s national soccer team match. But for many, DuPré’s performance was just a reminder of an issue that isn’t going away: whether companies are too quick to dismiss the viability of today’s advanced-aged workers.

To be sure, workers in their 70s and up may have no interest in the grind of a full workweek. But advances in medicine, nutrition, and exercise are now leaving more in this group ready to seek opportunities way past the once standard retirement age of 65.

Experts also say while the focus on attracting and developing millennials makes sense, rediscovering the value of older workers can help organizations that are scrambling to find the best talent, especially in a fast-shifting business landscape today where agility—and not age—may be a key predictor of success. “Learning doesn’t stop at a certain age,” says Guangrong Dai, senior director of research at the Korn Ferry Institute. “At any age, you could renew yourself.”

“Organizations are overlooking a labor force of vitality that could relieve some of the pressure of the talent shortage,” says Andrés Tapia, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in diversity and inclusion strategy.

Although unconscious bias against age often plays a role, experts say another factor comes into play: preconceived notions around career advancement. For the longest time, careers have been defined by a common, singular path. Professionals would snag an entry-level job, move into middle management, hit their peak, then start their slow descent to retirement. And until the Great Recession hit, most people didn’t come out of retirement.

Back in the day, that made sense—people died younger. In 1950, for example, the average life expectancy at birth was just shy of 70 years, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The retirement age at that time was 65.

But longevity is challenging that, experts say. People are living much longer these days; the average life expectancy shot up to 78.6 years in 2017, CDC data shows. Plus, thanks to healthier lifestyles and a volatile economy, more and more people are working past retirement age, which increased to 66.5 this year. “It’s a reality most organizations haven’t woken up to,” Tapia says.

According to Dai, leaders who want to attract and retain top talent will need to shift their mindset around aging. More specifically, they’ll have to decouple associations between age and rank, he says. Approaching talent management with the implicit belief that, at a certain age, careers should focus on leaving behind a legacy rather than being an active part of the labor pool, can hinder an organization’s long-term success. “It’s not about age. It’s about how much expertise you possess,” Dai says. “Leaders and managers need to create a culture that emphasizes skills, where people with unique skills come together and complement each other.”

Some experts do fear that retaining senior leaders and C-suite executives past their retirement can create a bottleneck in the pipeline, leaving younger professionals stuck in their roles with no way to climb the corporate ladder. And that could hamper an organization’s efforts to create diversity in senior leadership.

But Tapia says companies could tackle this issue by developing what he’s coined a “legacy track”—a pre-retirement phase in the corporate life cycle. Older executives who want to continue working can shift into the passenger seat, still overseeing important duties and providing guidance while allowing younger professionals to move into leadership roles.

Such a track not only helps organizations make way for new blood and fresh perspectives but also allows them to retain decades of experience and expertise that can prove invaluable to their bottom line. “In an era of huge disruption, don’t just look to the new,” Tapia says. “Don’t forget your legacy.”