The aging of the U.S. population is affecting the demographics of the work force. Between 2000 and 2010, the age group experiencing the greatest growth will be those aged 55-64; by 2005, people aged 55 and over are projected to be nearly 20% of the working age population, compared to 12.5% in 1990 (Barber, Crouch, and Merker 1992; Barth, McNaught, and Rizzi 1993). For a number of reasons, including financial need, longer life expectancy, and a desire to continue working, the number of individuals aged 55 and over in the work force is continuing to grow (Hall and Mirvis 1994). It is no longer unusual for individuals to retire from one job, begin drawing a pension, and seek new employment: since 1984, both the full- and part-time work of "retired" men younger than age 65 has increased noticeably (Herz 1995).
At the same time that the number of older persons available for and willing to work is increasing, the workplace is changing as businesses seek to become more competitive. The most notable changes include downsizing, increased use of technology, and less-hierarchical work structures that use teams. As a result of technological changes and greater dependence on teams, training and retraining are hallmarks of today's workplace. Older workers have not fared particularly well during these changes. During the downsizing that took place from 1986 through 1991, proportionately more older workers were laid off, and, at the expense of retraining existing employees--especially older workers--firms spend more on training new entrants (Hall and Mirvis 1994). Kantor (1994) refers to the aging work force as a "mixed blessing [because] many companies associate it not with a loyal, experienced workforce knowledgeable about its employers' businesses but with . . . uncertain returns from 'experience' in light of pressures for innovation and change" (p. 7).
Thus a paradox exists: an increasing proportion of the U.S. work force is aging at the same time the workplace is changing in ways that have been detrimental for older workers. By examining some of the myths and realities associated with older workers, this publication explores whether perceptions that have led to adverse treatment of older workers are accurate.
Attitudes and Beliefs: A Catch 22
Attitudes and beliefs about older workers have been characterized as "ambivalent" (Barth, McNaught, and Rizzi 1993, p. 162) and "mixed" (American Association for Retired Persons [AARP] 1995, p. 19), that is, older workers are viewed as having both positive and negative attributes. Several studies (AARP/Society for Human Resource Professionals [SHRM] 1993; AARP 1995; Barth, McNaught and Rizzi 1993; Hassell and Perrewe 1995) reveal that, when compared to younger workers, older workers are viewed positively on a number of traits including low absenteeism, low turnover, work attitudes and motivation, job skills, and loyalty.
These same studies also report conflicting findings that...