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Lounging in the lobby of San Francisco’s WeWork office, the trendy collaborative work space, Paul Tasner is wearing jeans with a brick-red pullover, chunky black glasses and a dusting of snowy stubble. To the pitter-patter of others playing table tennis and rapper Cam’ron singing about getting it on, Tasner explains what he brings to his work that he believes sets him apart from the millennials who flank him: a sprawling network, a sincere spirit of collaboration, know-how, drive and a sense of humor. His real selling point, though: experience. More than 40 years of it.
The Bay Area father of four has spent his entire career in consumer-product packaging, eventually acquiring titles like senior director and vice president. When Tasner was laid off during the recession, he could have retired but says he wasn’t ready to give up his work or his comfortable lifestyle. So during a time when others his age were collecting full Social Security benefits, Tasner and his business partner—20 years his junior—decided to build their own profitable business helping companies transition to sustainable packaging. “It would have been more difficult to do if I were younger,” he says.
Tasner is 70 years old, putting him in the same decade as Donald Trump, Larry Ellison and Martha Stewart, all of whom beg employers to consider the question: Has 70 become the new 50? But they also raise another dilemma: What place does the graying-but-young-at-heart have in today’s baby-faced workforce?
The labor pool is aging, which means an invaluable knowledge base may soon become obsolete if something isn’t done to plug the brain drain. While millennials may be the largest generation to pass, they don’t have the inherent sophistication to replace men and women who witnessed the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, the energy crisis of the ’70s and the emergence of the World Wide Web. “Companies are going to face urgencies in the very near future if they don’t start looking beyond millennials,” says Mark Schmit, vice president of research at Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), a professional human resources association headquartered in Virginia. “You’d better have a plan for transitioning knowledge to the next generation.”
Yet, based on SHRM surveys, the majority of companies haven’t made plans to recruit or retain their veteran employees. Human resources departments are frozen by uncertainties of how to professionally integrate baby boomers and their offspring, who have not so quietly seized the reigns. It’s the grand experiment: Can age groups as much as 50 years apart work successfully—and nicely—together? And perhaps even more relevant is whether the impending silver tsunami will be enough to push corporations past their reluctance to consider senior applicants often hobbled by skills sets out of step with the high-tech world of today. Because, as Andrés Tapia, a global expert on diversity and inclusion and a senior client partner at Korn Ferry, says, “This is the moment to push the panic button.”
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Of course, neither the brain drain nor the intergenerational challenges come as a surprise. At last count, one in five domestic workers—many of them top executives, lawyers, doctors and in specialized roles—were over age 65, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A rising 7 percent are already over 70. But even among those with the foresight to recognize the crisis that the looming loss of experience is likely to create over the next decade, few will speak on the topic.
Ten years ago, when Tasner interviewed at an industrial start-up selling sustainable, non-toxic household cleaners, he says his age felt like the gorilla in the room. But their response was, “How long do you think people stay here? We’re looking for a solid two to three years.” As a young company, Tasner says they wanted a veteran who could serve as a mentor.
There isn’t much data specific to hiring or career transitioning for this age group, but anecdotally most say they go into consulting rather than new full-time positions. That’s partly by choice; as grandparents or caregivers, they want the flexibility and the freedom of not working for someone else. Nor do companies want to take on the healthcare costs. The other reason, says Nick Corcodilos, a Silicon Valley headhunter since 1979: HR departments haven’t caught up to the age-quake. Rather than identifying the qualities and characteristics best suited for the position, he says companies sort résumés using superficial algorithms and LinkedIn profiles. “Once you give up your spot in the game, it’s hard to get back in,” says Jacquelyn James, co-director of the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College.
Roger Locy, who is cresting 70 this year, has worked in nuclear power since 1966, after joining the Navy out of high school. He says the main difference between entry-level and senior nuclear operators such as himself is one knows how and the other knows why—an important distinction when a complex crisis like Fukushima arises. In other words, it’s imperative the industry has veterans like Locy around to call on in case of emergency.
Perhaps the high stakes are what have forced the nuclear industry to figure out the key to successfully transferring power between the generations. At least part of the answer has been to keep its older workers engaged. This significant segment of the energy sector is expected to be hit especially hard over the next few years as the Nuclear Energy Institute estimates nearly 40 percent of its workforce will be eligible for retirement by 2018, creating an immediate need for roughly 20,000 skilled laborers. Often, Locy says, he finds himself the oldest in the room, prompting a predictable quip: “Do you know they let kids operate nuclear reactors now?”
Just a few months but many golf rounds after Locy retired in 2006, a plant in nearby Oswego came calling. Locy returned as a contractor, which afforded him a flexible three-day schedule and the mental freedom to leave his work at work. He’s now part of a team tasked with developing strategies should another Fukushima-like catastrophe strike, which has him working 10-hour days, six days a week. “We have new guys who are smart, but they just don’t have the experience,” Locy says. “Having someone around they can ask questions is a big benefit.”
Common assumptions say that millennials don’t listen and baby boomers bristle at the prospect of change. But Locy hasn’t found it difficult to navigate the intergenerational relationships, pointing to the time he was paired with a 23-year-old female engineer on a project. It was an ideal counterbalance of skills: She tapped him to answer questions and double-check her work, and he let her handle the Excel spreadsheets. “I don’t do that stuff,” he chuckles. Two main factors have kept Locy working well past retirement age: The companies have made it financially worthwhile, not insulting him with offers half of what they would present to someone 20 years younger. And they’ve given him challenging, meaningful work.
Experts say the key to blending workforces with such a huge generation gap is to avoid ignoring the issues and begin looking for solutions. In today’s start-up economy, younger managers are either afraid to manage people significantly older or try to exert too much authority, which veterans often rebuff. Companies that have been successful, though, are able to empower and engage, which on a logistic level might mean making sure to schedule meetings when older workers, if working part-time or remotely, are in the office. Video conferencing is another tool for keeping them engaged, while offering age-appropriate health and family benefits also can help.
That may be because their goals are different. According to a Pew Research Center survey, the biggest difference between the generations is work ethic: Younger workers go after money and the next promotion, while their elders are motivated by a greater mission. The generational mix also benefits creativity. Many have suggested that diverse teams spanning gender, culture and age spark the greatest innovation, and that creativity can often be an outgrowth of connecting contrasting ideas. “Senior members bring a perspective that completely colors and changes the dynamic,” says Henry Watkins, vice president of business development for the Medici Group, a strategy and innovation firm.
Of course, there are obvious downsides of the geriatric demographic: They may be luddites, fossilized in their ways, or burnt out or lethargic, and—it’s true—the clock is ticking. But researchers are discovering that some cognitive abilities don’t peak until later in life. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology last year measured mental abilities among executive job applicants across the age spectrum. Generally, older executives scored modestly lower than younger ones, with the largest drop-offs for subjects older than 60, which is why positions like air-traffic controllers have a mandatory retirement age of 56. Yet age has a positive correlation with higher crystallized intelligence, which measures experience-based knowledge such as verbal capability and emotional IQ. Widespread cognitive-ability tests used for narrowing candidate pools often don’t measure these attributes.
While cognitive decline starts in a person’s 20s, a University of California, San Francisco neuroscience lab has found that exercise, meditation and engagement in the arts and sciences can halt the backslide. So a mentally and physically active 70-year-old might be more astute than a loafer half her age. There’s also little research that shows lower cognitive ability affects job performance.
That’s certainly how our gray-haired man working alongside the hoodie-wearing futures of industry sees it. Tasner say he’s as motivated now as at any other point in his career. He enjoys a sense of purpose in a society that in many ways has written off older individuals. Still, does Tasner feel old here? He takes a sip of his murky 2 o’clock beer and looks around. “No. I feel more out of step with my peers playing golf three times a week.”