Davina Lloyd knows the perils of ageism. At 50, her career as a successful British magazine editor had abruptly stalled. "Like other skilled professionals, I found that mysteriously I just wasn’t being called to the interviews." Solution: she launched her own recruitment agency, dedicated to finding employment for older workers. Six years on, Agewise Recruitment lists more than 3,000 names on its books and has helped a slew of frustrated job seekers, from diplomats to accountants, back into work in the face of continuing prejudice.
A number of companies across the Atlantic—both old and new—are doing the same. Across the developed world, the first group of baby boomers are still healthy and eager to work (and many have to, thanks to pension cutbacks). Yet age-discrimination suits across much of America and Europe are running at near-record highs, as companies push older workers out in favor of younger, cheaper staff, willing and able to work round the clock. A 25-nation survey by the international recruitment agency Manpower earlier this year found that fewer than a quarter of businesses had strategies in place to recruit or retain older workers. Yet there are skill shortages in key industries that boomers can fill. Why the disconnect? Put simply: "Employers prefer workers that are young, attractive, intelligent and single," says Ken Dychtwald, founder of Age Wave, a U.S.-based research and consulting firm that specializes in aging populations.
That’s an attitude that corporate strategists may come to regret. While OECD figures show that less than 60 percent of 50- to 65-year-olds in mature economies work, those numbers will shift as demographics push up the age of the employment pool. The boomers are certainly ready: only 12 percent of people now in their 40s and 50s expect to quit the workplace early, according to a global survey published earlier this year by the British bank HSBC.
Need is a huge factor, as retirement benefits and pensions dwindle on either side of the Atlantic, but many professional boomers are also bored by the prospect of endless golf and want to keep a hand in work. More than 10 percent of Americans ages 55 to 59 are collecting retirement benefits from one employer and working for another.
The impetus to employ older workers is especially strong in skills-scarce industries like technology and health care. Companies such as Hoffman-La Roche, Cigna, Mitre and Aerospace have established retiree temp pools with formal legal and compensation arrangements. In 2003, P&G and Eli Lilly founded YourEncore, a kind of employment agency for retired scientists and engineers that matches its 4,000 global "experts" to temporary needs at 23 member companies.
The Internet is also changing the game. Niche Web sites such as RetireeWorkforce.com and Dinosaurexchange.com hope to compete with Monster.com and the like by targeting seniors and the employers who need them. Dow Chemical will soon launch a social-networking site for its employees, including a special area for retirees, where current employees can tap their expertise.
In Europe, there’s a new vogue for "interim management"—employing former bosses on short-term projects. "These people can just move in for three or six months, use their expertise and then—bang—move on to somewhere else, if that’s what they want," says Tom Hadley of the Britain-based Recruitment and Employment Confederation. In recent years, scores of recruitment agencies have adapted to meet the changing demands while enterprising newcomers such as Agewise have entered the field to cater specifically to older workers. Trends are working in their favor as European employers turn increasingly to flexible short-termers. In Spain, one in three workers now appears on the payroll as a temp. U.S. firms are also keen on contract workers, as the lack of health-care costs results in higher profits for firms. At Scripps’s hospitals throughout San Diego, California, for example, 40 percent of the staff is 50 or older, with customized schedules that include a choice between higher pay or benefits.
The mix of options will increase only as boomer spending power does. The 50-plus population "controls most of the world’s wealth," notes Dychtwald. As boomers shell out more in areas like financial services, tourism and retail, experts say those industries will begin hiring more older workers. We may see more boomers selling each other everything from annuities to package holidays. "We grew up being told you can have it all—have babies and a major career," says Beth Gulas, whose U.S.-based consultancy, WorkPlace Management, makes a point of employing older staffers on easy schedules appropriate to their ages. Consultants average just 30 percent of their time on the road, compared with 90 percent in their youth. "We wore ourselves out," she says. "Now, as older workers, we really can have it all. If we’re not accommodated, we’ll teach, become a consultant or go to a nonprofit." Spoken with the optimism of a true boomer.