How truly age-agnostic hiring practices could be a competitive boon


There’s a lot of discussion these days concerning the impact robots, artificial intelligence, machine learning and even plain old automation will have on jobs. No surprise, given that technology already is replacing manufacturing line workers, call center operators, financial traders, supermarket cashiers and more.

Yet this intense focus on the robot invasion may be causing all of us to avoid a larger societal challenges, while also distracting enterprises from recognizing valuable resources within their midst, writes George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cohen in a Bloomberg Opinion article, “Forget New Robots. Keep Your Eye on the Old People.”

“No matter how much they may disavow explicit age discrimination, many companies try to portray themselves as cool places to work for young people,” Cohen says. “And indeed these companies are especially interested in hiring younger people: The median age at the hot tech companies ranges from 27 to 31.”  He says more established companies with a median age of 38 or 39 are considered much “stodgier” places to work. The median age of U.S. workers is slightly over 42.

That tech company workforces would skew young hardly is surprising: Younger people tend to be more tech-savvy and, in the case of start-ups, more able or willing to put in long hours.

But by essentially rolling with these realities, Cohen argues, many enterprises are failing to fully leverage the resources that older employees can provide, including perspective, judgment and even tech skills. Which, he says, leaves plenty of opportunity for more far-sighted, age-agnostic organizations.

“I would suggest that the ability to spot, mobilize and deploy older workers is the next biggest source of competitive advantage in the U.S.,” Cohen writes. “The sober reality is that many companies should retool their methods to fit better with the experience and sound judgment found so often in older workers.”

Doing so won’t be easy, he says. For one thing, our culture always has celebrated youth, which results in an inherent bias against older people. So there are fears, assumptions and prejudices that must be overcome. In addition, enterprises probably will have to make extra efforts to help older employees stay current with new technologies, which are an unavoidable part of many jobs.

Still, if the name of the game is optimizing assets, it makes sense to retain older employees who still can contribute value to an organization. As I wrote in February, “Enterprises that transform automation/AI merely into an opportunity to hack their payrolls may ultimately regret their shortsightedness because by slashing the workforce they run the risk of giving away their most valuable competitive assets, which are people (well, the right people).”

And the right people, I added, are those “employees who can deliver added value through their work and communications skills, professional relationships, experience, judgment and ability to collaborate.”

No matter what their age.

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