We need a major redesign of Our Workforce

By Mike Cook for the BBJ


In case you haven’t noticed, the economy at present has been so robust that many employers are experiencing a difficult time finding good people to fill vacancies in the businesses. In addition, plans for growth and expansion are being thwarted because employers are challenged to think about finding the workers to support their plans.

This isn’t just needless worry on the part of employers, this is an unusual time. Not only is it difficult to find people actively looking for employment, it is getting tougher to find people with the right qualifications, even if they are seeking employment. The time has come for employers to step back and look broadly at the reality they are faced with and see whether their expectations reflect any connection to what is really going on.

I recently came across an opinion piece written by a Stanford researcher that got me thinking in a new direction insofar as this seeming shortage of labor is concerned. The author of the piece, Laura Carstensen, is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford. Her article, really an Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post, points out that while nearly thirty years were added to the average life expectancy in the U.S. our thinking about longevity remained rooted in the model that was fixated on a much shorter life span, much shorter by as much as those years that have been added. Think about it, doesn’t your own model for retirement have some relationship to the number 65!

Recently I was having lunch with a couple of friends, ages 73 and 75, and was joking that having now reached 70 no one would ever say, “Oh, but he was so young!” if I happened to pass away now. Both my friends, very actively employed as it turns out, immediately took issue with me and suggested that age 70 is the new 50 in their minds. Quickly rethinking my statement, I realized that in addition to these two friends I know at least a dozen other people, well into their 70’s, who are actively involved in some form of employment. This realization was so provocative that after lunch I immediately purchased a copy of Laura Carstensen’s book, ‘A Long Bright Future’ in hopes of gaining further insight into my own life plans as well as being able to counsel my clients on working with an older workforce.

So here we have two different populations, one much older than the other, worrying about outliving their money while the other wonders how they are going to meet the growing workforce requirements with an insufficient labor supply. And, for the most part these two populations are kept apart by a set of beliefs, on the part of both groups, that support a reality that has in fact, come and gone some years back. These folks need to start talking to each other!

As it turns out, once we (the older and getting older bunch) stumble upon the realization that we are living a lot longer than we used to and often ill prepared, psychologically, emotionally and possibly financially for this truth we can think creatively about this new reality. Correspondingly, employers will need to not only to consider the older worker but also the different expectations of this growing population. As Laura Carstensen point out, “Work, too, must change. There’s every reason to expect more zigzagging in and out of the labor force — especially by employees who are caring for young children or elderly parents — and more participation by workers over 60. There is good reason to think we will work longer, but we can improve work quality with shorter workweeks, flexible scheduling and frequent “retirements.”

Finally, as is often the case when I am writing these pieces, I realize that my message is not necessarily good news for everyone, in fact it might be viewed as pouring gasoline on the fire. The older reader might think, “Oh great, now he’s telling me I need to go back to work after several years of retirement!” The employer reader may think that rather than an answer I have given them one more problem to deal with, “Terrific, this is just what I need, someone telling me that the way to solve my labor problems is to rethink think the way I have been doing business for years!”

What I would say to both groups is “YES” to whatever you are thinking. And I would say to both groups something that smart guy, Einstein, that we are always so eager to quote said, “We cannot solve our current problems with the same thinking we used in creating them.”

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