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My Time by Abigail Trafford

Breaking Through The Silver Ceiling

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, September 28, 2004; Page HE01

Memo to a headhunter: Find us some wise, experienced workers looking for new challenge. . .

Wishful thinking? Not entirely. A few companies are using that bold solicitation and wooing seasoned employees -- or making new efforts to retain them.

Loudoun Healthcare Inc., a community nonprofit organization, got together with George Mason University to offer a master of nursing program at the hospital -- tuition-free. Since the average age of nurses nationwide is in the late forties, the carrot of education and advancement is a way to keep and recruit experienced personnel.

SSM Health Care in St. Louis and the Bon Secours Richmond health system have instituted phased retirement programs so that employees can collect retirement benefits and continue to work part-time.

At St. Mary's Medical Center in Huntington, W.Va., those nearing retirement age can reduce their hours without sacrificing retirement benefits. Employees enjoy flexible hours. San Diego-based Scripps Health not only boasts phased retirement, education programs, job-sharing and flexible schedules, it offers a training course to all employees called "Crossing the Generation Chasm" -- making chronological diversity part of its work ethic.

These health care institutions are among the 35 employers nationwide that were recently ranked by AARP as the best places to work if you are over 50. With the aging of the population, the winning companies forecast what the workplace of tomorrow should look like -- a utopian vision of flexible hours, job sharing, educational opportunities, career advancement and secure benefits.

By 2010, there will be more than 80 million Americans between the ages of 50 and 80. Most are going to be in the workforce. Surveys of men and women in the baby boom generation show that the vast majority intend to work in their so-called retirement years; more than half expect to work part-time.

Chronological diversity is destined to be the next wave of social change in the workplace. More than 50 percent of the workforce is already over age 40.

But this movement has a long way to go. The reality is that many men and women bump up against a Silver Ceiling in the workplace.

A survey of workers 45 and older by AARP found that two-thirds were concerned that age discrimination was a major barrier to advancement. Since 2000, the number of age discrimination cases brought to the federal government has increased after a decline in the late 1990s.

Last week the Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing on barriers against the older worker.

"Despite irrefutable evidence of both workforce aging and the untapped talents and reliability of older workers, ageism may be causing many managers to march their companies or organizations straight off a demographic cliff," San Francisco gerontologist Ken Dychtwald told the committee in prepared testimony.

Citing a recent survey, Dychtwald pointed out that two-thirds of U.S. employers don't actively recruit older workers; more than half don't try to retain them. And 60 percent of CEOs didn't take into account the aging of the workforce in their long-term business plans.

"In our youth-oriented society, most human resource practices are often explicitly or implicitly biased against older workers, and these biases can seep into the culture in a manner that makes [these workers] feel unwelcome," continued Dychtwald, president and CEO of Age Wave Inc., a consulting firm.

Victoria Humphrey, head of human resources at Volkswagen of America, put it this way.

"In the mid-'90s, there was a common practice of actively recruiting young professionals with MBA degrees to infuse the organization with what was commonly referred to as 'new blood.' As many companies tried to turn their organizations around, they became dismissive toward older, more experienced workers. This attitude is, in fact, a form of ageism . . . and ageism can be just as powerful as any other 'ism.' "

Volkswagen, which is also honored by AARP as one of the best employers for workers over 50, is the exception, she pointed out. The company hired her when she was 53.

Why do some companies value the older worker?

The bottom line is the economic imperative for chronological diversity. Health care agencies dominate AARP's list of winners because they face a drain of workers, especially nurses. Hospitals are scrambling to keep the nurses they have and rehire those who have been out of the workforce. So they find ways to attract the older worker.

Utilities, aerospace companies, universities and the federal government face a similar squeeze. The average age of engineers, mechanics and other workers in the defense industry is 51.

By 2030, according to researchers at the Employment Policy Foundation, there will be a labor shortage of up to 35 million workers.

How will companies fill the gap?

By hiring older workers with needed skills.

But do we have to wait that long to break through the Silver Ceiling?•

Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to mytime@washpost.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address below; mark the envelope "My Time."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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