The other day I watched the movie Intern. It is a light and entertaining comedy, which also makes some good points. Specifically, the story features a 70-year-old widower Ben, played by Robert de Niro, who becomes a senior intern at an online fashion company run by young and ambitious Jules (played by Anne Hathaway). Although being perceived as a burden at first, Ben manages to turn the perception around and bring a lot of value to the company, as if proving that ‘experience never gets old’. Moreover, this senior internship also benefits Ben himself, making this case of ageing employment a win-win situation.
The same notion is also raised in a relevant Forbes article titled ‘Aging Populations Are Good For The Old And The Young’. The contributing author argues that such understanding is often lacking, while instead there is an ongoing intergenerational warfare. On the one hand, we indeed often hear younger people complaining that the old hold on to their jobs, thus making labor opportunities for the upcoming generations scarcer. On the other hand, there is also a global threat of a generally aging population, which means that as the number of seniors in need of social support increases, the number of the working population, hence those that provide such support, will decrease. Seems like a problem no matter how you look at it, doesn’t it? Yet, this warfare is misleading.
First of all, we tend to fall for the lump of labor fallacy, which is thinking that the amount of work available is fixed – so if someone gets more, someone else has to get less. Although a somewhat contradictory intuition, there is already enough real data by now showing a positive interdependence among generations. In other words, research suggests that high elderly employment rates are associated with high youth employment rates. According to The Pew Economic Mobility Project investigation, in the period of 1977-2011 a one percentage point increase in the employment rate among older workers is associated with a decline in youth unemployment of 0.10 percentage points, an increase in youth employment of 0.21 percentage points.
Secondly, although the notion of the aging population holds true, the implication of the dependency ratio is flawed. The increase in the aging population can equal an increase of dependent elderlies only in case we define a dependent elderly as ‘everyone 65 and over’. Yet, not everyone 65 and over is not working, which means that not all of them are dependent. Joseph Coleman, a professor researching the topic of the aging workforce, found that, ‘for a lot of people, being retired is not what they wanted to do’. Coleman describes older workers as trained and energetic, who are willing to work, yet feel being discriminated against by their age. As such, as a society we have this untapped resource, which can be used as an opportunity.
As the Forbes article concludes using the words of Allen Glicksman, director of research and evaluation at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, ‘What’s good for old people is good for everybody’.
If good for everybody, then good for global mobility?
Naturally. I touched upon this topic in some of my previous blog posts (here and here), arguing that the aging workforce should not be overlooked in the global labor market. Given more work flexibility and some additional training, the aging workforce can be successfully used to fill in global labor gaps.
Can we take more initiative and be more creative with the aging population also in terms of global mobility? I believe so. Let’s say there are different types of international assignments: developmental assignments for young employees, ‘know-how sharing’ assignments for skilled employees, ‘fix it’ leadership assignments for managerial roles, and so on… So, why not create assignment opportunities for older employees, who could utilize their experience, maturity and larger vision? Wouldn’t older expats be useful in support, or knowledge and experience sharing, or mentoring assignments?
And if they don’t want to physically relocate anymore? Well, then these experienced older expats can be of great value when preparing the new generation for expatriation, or when supporting visiting assignees as host location mentors.
All in all, it seems that there are vast opportunities, all of which boil down to the message of the movie: ‘experience never gets old’, hence, let’s use it!