Making Change: The Demographic Shift to Older Workers

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If one phrase could sum up CVS manager Dale Vernon's approach to work, it might be this:

Dale Vernon: Vernon here. How can I help?

Vernon started with CVS nearly a decade ago. For the past three years, he's managed the Harvard Avenue store in Cleveland. Vernon is retirement age now, but that is possibly the furthest thing from his mind.

Dale Vernon: I plan to continue with the company as long as I'm physically able. I think if you've had a career, and you've worked for a good number of years, you need to keep busy, keep your mind occupied. I don't think sitting on the couch would do me a lot of good.

AARP estimates that by 2010, one in five workers will be 55 or older. Some simply can't imagine not working. Josephine Newman works in the pharmacy at a Garfield Heights CVS store. She's nearing 70 and has worked for 40 years.

Josephine Newman: I'm so geared to work; I'm so geared to do these things. I don't know how to relax at home. I don't know how to do that kind of stuff, because I've always been working and doing things. I can't just sit, how people watch TV. I can't do that.

But many can, and will. It's something human resource professionals have been preparing for, for years - a paradoxical demographic shift in which more older people will work than ever before, but those who retire will leave key posts empty. One strategy? Recruitment.

Suzanne Trevison: I would say over about the past five-year period, we've more than doubled the percentage of our employee base that are the age of 55 and older.

Suzanne Trevison, senior manager of specialty recruiting at Borders Books, says Borders wants its stores to reflect the population they serve. Borders is one of a dozen or so employers working with AARP to expand their older workforce. Trevison says hiring older - or mature - workers makes good business sense.

Suzanne Trevison: We have found mature workers to, number one, be very knowledgeable about our products. Number two, we have also found that our turnover level with mature workers is about half of that of the younger generation.

Marianne Wills: We're seeing a whole lot of employers who are coming to us and saying we want an older worker because the younger workers don't have a work ethic.

Marianne Wills runs the Cuyahoga County-based Senior Community Service Employment Program, which refers low-income seniors to jobs. Age-based assumptions are common, she says, and they cut both ways. Employers may praise older workers' loyalty and work ethic, but question whether they have the capacity to learn new skills and the physical ability to do their jobs. Wills' program addresses that concern by trying applicants out first - in real jobs, paid at minimum wage.

Marianne Wills: In many cases we can say, 'Yes, we have perfect candidates for you and we've worked with them for 6 months, and we know they can do the work because they've demonstrated that to us.'

But as the demographics of the workplace shift - bringing large numbers of older and Boomer-age workers together with workers of Generations X and Y - problems can arise. Josephine Newman has found this. She says younger staff are often arrogant.

Josephine Newman: Some of them come in like they know it all. you know, and I 've been there all these years and they're telling me how to do things.

But not everyone sees this kind of intergenerational conflict as a big problem. Dale Vernon says the character traits he looks for in prospective employees - the most important of which is a fierce dedication to customer service - tend to balance out generational differences. And Newman's coworker, Rose Wozniak - a relative neophyte with a mere 28 years on the job - says she's had no trouble getting along with her younger coworkers.

Rose Wozniak: Kids are kids. They're the same as when I raised my kids. They just basically easy to get along with, and they do their job, and they're eager to work. And it makes for a good atmosphere, you know?

Not all employers are actively addressing the aging of the workforce. Indeed, several high-profile age discrimination lawsuits suggest some companies don't see the value in their older workers. But for employers who do, Borders' Suzanne Trevison suggests figuring out and offering what they most want - maybe flexible schedules, or health coverage for part-timers.

Ultimately, if they're anything like Josephine Newman, older workers will stay (or come back) when doing so is fun and rewarding.

Josephine Newman: You get a customer who says, 'Thank goodness you're still there.' Someone asked me yesterday, 'What are the days that you work? Because that's when I want to come in.'

In Cleveland, Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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