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A Call to Tackle the Problem of Ageism

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Howard Risher
March 4, 2020

It’s been recognized repeatedly—government is in a talent war. But it’s not limited to the problems of attracting and retaining new employees. Public agencies actually have considerable talent—(the phrase, “The best and the brightest,” was of course coined in a book on government—but it’s common to see employees whose talents are not fully utilized. That’s attributable to antiquated people management practices and it’s a problem at all levels of government.

This column was triggered by the cover article on the current AARP Bulletin, “Special Report: Ageism in the Workplace.” Ageism is prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age. It is common across our society, in every sector and occupation. An AARP survey found 3 in 5 older workers have seen or experienced overt age discrimination. 

But this is not only a social or legal issue; there is also an economic argument for eliminating ageism. From 2007 to 2018, the labor force participation of workers under age 55 fell. Added to that it’s been reported young workers do not see government as an attractive career path. In the same period, older worker participation, male and female, increased. The most striking increase is for men and women age 60 and older. With the unusually tight labor market, it would be to the country’s advantage to induce older workers to continue working.

Older workers may be disadvantaged in fields where technical knowledge is changing rapidly but they have a broad understanding of organizational realities. Further, studies have shown they frequently outperform younger workers, especially on leadership, listening, writing skills and problem solving. Now they are retiring and their capabilities are lost.

Despite the evidence, organizations, public and private, have policies that broadly facilitate and encourage age-based discrimination. Those policies are unfortunately embedded in civil service regulations and enabled by government HR systems. Personnel actions that consider seniority stand out. There are also common stereotypes and phrases typified by, “57 is the golden age,” that influence individuals planning as they approach the date they can retire.

Ageism’s cost is related to the underutilization of the knowledge and skills of experienced workers. Leading companies are aggressively switching to practices known to support higher performance. Government gives lip service to ideas like, “Engagement,” and, “Empowerment,” but then fails to tackle ineffective practices. There has also been a failure to invest in selecting and developing effective managers. They are the key to engagement and high performance.

A largely unrecognized aspect of the cost is the continued reliance on top down, “Over-the-shoulder,” supervision. A recent two-part report the National Academy of Public Administration focused on the common, “Culture of compliance.” Employees know they are expected to do as they are directed. In business it’s the ones who exceed expectations that are recognized; in government it’s the ones who fail to follow orders that get the attention.

As a consultant to government, it’s clear government has many dissatisfied employees. Those that consider leaving government, however, learn their experience is not viewed as a positive by corporate employers. That makes it difficult to find jobs at the same or higher pay. The result is the individuals are effectively locked in. Over the years their frustration grows and adversely affects everyone.

Something has to change. Government’s workforce is the oldest of any sector. Retirements are heavy and that’s going to continue. When that is considered together with the problems recruiting and retaining young workers, it portends serious staffing problems—and deteriorating performance. 

It’s striking how many government employees retire early, planning to start new careers. Today the average person lives to 78. A healthy 55 year-old male can expect to reach 91. A second career could easily extend for a decade or more. But retirees could also continue in their government job for those years. Changes in government pension plans are inevitable. For mid-career and younger employees, early retirement should be made less attractive.

But changing eligibility for early retirement is not enough. Additional recommendations to make it attractive for older workers to continue working include:

  • Meeting with focus groups of employees possibly over age 50 to discuss needed changes to improve their work experience. (Similar meetings with employees at all ages should be routine).
  • Developing training modules for supervisors and managers to make them more sensitive to the interests of older workers and the organization’s plans to retain the better performers.
  • Assess recent personnel actions—g. promotions, financial rewards, training opportunities—for evidence of discrimination.
  • Reviewing performance management ratings for discrimination and identifying older workers who warrant recognition; developing individual plans for retaining and utilizing their knowledge and skills.
  • Completing a workforce planning exercise to identify those soon to be eligible to retire along future skill requirements and matching the results with current staff capabilities.
  • Assessing the possibility of developing new work arrangements (e.g., part time) or a new role for older workers to retain the best performers.

The idea is not to keep all older workers but to avoid losing those with special talents. Future staffing needs may not be met otherwise.


Author: Howard Risher PhD writes from a 40-year career in consulting that includes clients from all sectors including the UN and the OECD. He focuses on creating a work experience where employees are engaged and committed to achieving their employer’s goals. He is the author of several books including Primer on Total Compensation in Government, published by the IPMA-HR.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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