Over 50: Fighting to Stay Relevant

Half of workers over the age of 50 will lose their jobs before they turn 60, new research shows. The problem isn’t new—but the extent of it may be.

James and Betty are both in their mid-50s. Both are successful and well-compensated executive vice presidents at their respective companies. From a talent and performance perspective, they are essentially mirror images of each other. Before they turn 60, however, one of them will be out of a job.

At least, that’s what the latest research suggests. A new study shows that at some point between the ages of 50 and 59, half of workers will lose their jobs . Some of these workers are voluntarily stepping away, but the vast majority are being laid off, pushed out, or pulled away by health concerns or caregiving responsibilities, according to the research. And for a variety of reasons—firms needing more tech skills; tougher economic times; a hungry millennial workforce moving up—experts say the shift away from this group could gain momentum.

In older studies dating to before the pandemic, 50% of those between the the ages of 50 to 65 lost their jobs, a less surprising result. The new research suggests a much stronger movement toward the younger, tech-savvy set, as well as an effort to reduce the high wages of the older set by “phasing” them out. “This is about money,” says Daniel Rubin, a senior client partner and global account leader at Korn Ferry.

The news is alarming to gray-haired workers. But experts say firms may be making a calculated error. “It’s short-sighted,” says Tanya van Biesen, a managing partner for Korn Ferry. She notes that the loss of institutional knowledge and the lack of mentoring for younger generations could negatively impact succession planning.

Precise data on layoffs by age group is hard to come by, but statistics suggest a barbell distribution, with workers targeted the most at the youngest and oldest ends of the spectrum. In the tech sector, which leads the way in layoffs this year, the bulk of 2023 layoffs have affected employees younger than 40 and older than 50, for instance. From a leadership perspective, van Biesen says the generational imbalance in layoffs will make it difficult for firms to “identify great, experienced leaders of the future.” Or, as Rubin see it, firms risk running into succession issues on both ends, “with older, more experienced employees being forced out, and younger employees not being as interested as past generations in climbing the corporate ladder.”

Amid a labor shortage and retention challenges involving top talent, experts say the best step for leaders is to think more strategically about their aging workers. Instead of seeing layoffs through a purely financial lens, Rubin says, companies could help level the playing field for older workers by making assessments for competencies, skills, traits, and drivers, as well as by considering life and professional experience. As Korn Ferry executive coach Loretta Barr notes, older workers are often excluded from the diversity and inclusion discussion. She says one way to promote age diversity is through reverse mentoring programs in which younger employees help train older ones on new technology while older employees assist younger ones with navigating the corporate environment. Korn Ferry senior client partner Anu Gupta adds that companies can start encouraging sabbaticals as a way to retain older workers while also making room for the next generation of leaders.

For older people who still want to work but not necessarily full-time, interim employment could be the answer, says Bob Carlson, president of the Executive Interim practice in North America for Korn Ferry. “Committing to one place is too much of a risk for them,” he says, “but they see coming in for six months as a lucrative and positive use of their skills and experience.”


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