Will bitter 70-year-olds become a common sight in the office?

Nov 19 2008 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Even before the financial meltdown America was facing a retirement crisis. Now, with workers ever more reliant on stock market-based pensions that are collapsing in value and focused on meeting daily bills rather than saving for their old age, the U.S is heading into murky and uncharted waters.

According to Workforce Management, the current generation of mid-career, forty-something workers is the first to be predominantly reliant on stock market-linked 401(k) pension plans - meaning that, unlike their parents, they will not have a guaranteed source of retirement income.

With final salary, defined-benefit plans now a rarity, retiree health plans being scrapped as an indulgence employers can no longer afford, the stock market in freefall and many mid-career workers facing the prospect of redundancy, the dream of retiring in your sixties, even your late sixties, is becoming ever more distant.

And the consequences for workplaces, and managers, of this demographic shift could be catastrophic, it warned.

A mass of older workers past the traditional retirement age could create huge bottlenecks that jam up companies, making it much harder for firms to promote talented individuals and stopping younger workers get on the career ladder.

Even worse, firms could find themselves having to manage a population of "ageing slackers", or older workers who are doing just the bare minimum to get a pay cheque without getting fired.

Teresa Ghilarducci of the New School for Social Research in New York, told the publication: "At the very least, employers may be facing employee disaffection. Employee revenge often comes in the form of work slowdown. It's not so hard to do just enough to get by without getting fired."

Then there is the worrying prospect of disgruntled older workers resorting to litigation or even work sabotage because of their lack of retirement savings.

Employers that failed to think about these issues ran the risk of becoming less competitive, warned Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

"If companies think they are going to be stuck with less-productive workers who are being paid relatively high compensation, they have a financial incentive to help those people accumulate substantive retirement savings," she said.

This is by no means the first warning of its kind, and probably won't be the last.

Just last month, a survey by consultancy firm Aon found that, within four out of 10 American businesses, fewer than 70 per cent of workers were contributing towards a pension.

And back in April, a study by the Wall Street Journal Online/Harris Interactive Personal Finance reported that a quarter of U.S adults who were actively planning for their retirement were undoing all their good work by prematurely withdrawing money from their retirement investment products.

Research from the Center for Retirement Research has also shown that the average amount in 401(k) accounts is currently $35,000 for a head of household 40 to 49 years old, said Workforce Management.

Yet on average a married couple looking to retire in 2030 would need to save $378,000 to purchase an annuity that would cover just out-of-pocket health care costs in retirement.

"We are going to have a major crisis 30 years from now unless we have a very strong economy and robust stock market," said Ted Benna, chief operating officer of Malvern Benefits, a 401(k) plan administrator.

One way employers are trying to help mid-career workers is by offering them financial education, added Workforce Management.

It cited the example of IBM, which last year launched MoneySmart, a phone-based personal financial planning service for all its 128,000 U.S employees.

A key element of this has been to help out employers in their 40s and 50s manage their retirement saving since the company froze its defined-benefit plan earlier this year, Karen Salinaro, vice president of compensation and benefits, told the publication.

"This middle group of employees has multiple concerns ranging from college savings to retirement to whether they need or want a second career," she said.

"They need a customised approach where they can sit with a counsellor and go through the issues," she added.

Older Comments

Nick, I agree with the financial concern that workers who stay on past normal retirement age might have. However, there is another side to the argument and I believe, a far more positive one.

I can't believe the negative comments made in the various reports, about older workers. These reports tend to suggest that older workers are less motivated and less productive than their younger counterparts, even given their financial situation. That has not been my experience.

As I reported in an earlier article The ageing workforce - a disappearing asset, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety report that older workers exhibit lower turnover, more dedication to the workplace, and have more positive work values. Absenteeism is less frequent, although it is longer when it does happen.

What about the positive effects of having older people at work, such as their ability to mentor younger, less experienced managers (much needed), their extensive industry and organisational knowledge and their ability to maturely deal with people problems encountered with key stakeholders such as customers, suppliers and other staff?

As an ageing slacker myself, I take great affront to these so-called social science researchers who are probably just out of graduate school and may still possibly be able to remember their last pair of short pants.

Employee revenge, litigation, work sabotage, - these people would make great script writers for Hollywood fantasies!

Yes, there is a very real concern about lack of retirement savings and funding, and health care. However, I do not think that this will be the catalyst for older workers to embark on a campaign of industrial espionage.

Bob Selden

Bob Selden Switzerland

Where have all these bitter seventy year olds who will create huge employment bottlenecks suddenly come from? If you’ve been a useful, ambitious employee all your life, why would you suddenly turn into a slacker who does a bare minimum to get by?

Self respect doesn’t fly out the window as the years advance - if anything it reveals itself more openly in a willingness to help others get to grips with tasks that will advance them and their organization. Where are the counsellors who will sit with the “middle group of employees who currently have multiple concerns ranging from college savings to retirement or whether they need or want a second career” going to come from if not from motivated older workers who want new stimuli to keep them up to speed.

The quality older workers bring to the table is experience and an awareness that only by being realistic about the present can we hope to deliver a productive future

We need some new communal social edicts that ensure all people - unless they are of pre -school age or totally incapacitated ' should work towards the general good. For what’s the point of adding twenty-five healthy years to human lives if they can’t be spent out there in the real world?

Janet Howd

janet Howd London