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Older employees: new roles for valued resources.

Until recently, virtually all institutional rules that influenced older workers' retirement decisions pushed workers in the same direction--toward retirement at age 65 or earlier. Even in organizations where no formal policy of mandatory retirement existed, the older employee was often steered toward retirement. Both public and private pension systems provided little or no added benefits for those who worked beyond age 65 and few employers offered part-time or flexible work arrangements that would allow the worker to ease into retirement. On the other hand, because mandatory retirement, usually at age 65, was a common practice, some older workers who were not performing satisfactorily were probably "carried" by their employers until age 65.

While many institutions, particularly pension systems, still encourage early retirement, one tool has essentially been taken away from employers--Federal law now prohibits forced retirement prior to age 70. And many employees have shown little reluctance in using this protection when they perceive that their employment status has been jeopardized because of their age.

The authors of Older Employees, Benson Rosen and Thomas H. Jerdee, assert that Federal age discrimination law may be forcing many business managers to do what they should have already been doing, that is, use good management practices so that both they and their employees could benefit from the continued employment of older workers.

Older employees is an introductory guide for human resource planners and others on how to effectively utilize the skills and abilities of older workers. It attempts to steer the perception of the older worker/employer relationships away from an adversarial one.

Much of the authors' material comes from their research into management's perception of older workers, gained through survey questionnaires and other methods. Some of the most insightful results come from having managers make personnel decisions using hypothetical situations. Results show that an employee's age is often a key element in manager's decisions concerning training, promotion, retention, and disciplinary actions. Throughout the volume, the authors make generous use of case studies that are no doubt familiar to many managers.

The first several chapters cover the issue of age stereotyping, followed by a summary of changes in functional abilities and job performance of the older workers. Unfortunately, documentation that would aid in further exploring the research alluded to in this section is lacking. While Rosen and Jerdee do not exactly overwhelm the reader with information on older-worker performance, the main point should be that differences between individuals in terms of job performance are far greater within age groups than between age groups. Thus, personnel and other management decisions must be made on the basis of individual performance. This point is also the cornerstone of age discrimination law.

The last part of this volume is a "how-to" for the business manager, beginning with how to live with Federal age discrimination law to how to do career planning, performance assessment, skill updating, and how to design a flexible retirement system. Much of this material is like a primer in the various aspects of human resource management. Often, such as in the discussion of planning for future personnel needs or evaluating employee performance, the reader becomes aware that these management tools apply to all employees, regardless of age.

Because this book is a plea for enlightened, nondiscriminatory treatment of older workers, some of the authors' own prejudices and loose interpretations of factual material stand out. A very early beacon is the statement that "few managers harbor prejudice against the older employee," a statement that is surprising since the authors spent many months of research and several chapters in this book to disprove it. Equally disconcerting is the authors' insistence that the intergenerational conflicts between older and younger workers, which are exacerbated during periods of high unemployment, are a nonissue. The authors further state, "delaying retirement should win out because it makes sense from the basic economic standpoint of getting more people to contribute to the stream of goods and services that are available for consumption." Not only is this dubious economic analysis, but such macroeconomic concerns are of little relevance to the individual manager.

Other examples of careless misstatements are that more older people are interested in working and that a majority of older workers want to work beyond age 65. These statements are probably both wrong and misleading. But the authors give away the origin of such misstatements when they make the judgment that early retirement buyouts lead workers to the "retirement scrap heap." While sometimes true (figuratively), such a statement would be an insult to the tens of thousands of older workers, who, as a rational personal decision, accept such early-out inducements.

One can easily forgive such overeagerness when the importance of this book is considered. It is written for business administrators by business administrators whereas most of the literature on aging and work comes from economists or older worker advocates and is of little value at the workplace. The book is a practical guide with many useful examples and suggestions for action. Most important, with only a few lapses into excess, it forcefully argues that the goals of the firm are best met by creating an environment where all employees, regardless of age, are able to contribute their best towards those goals. Older workers are too often seen as an employer's problem rather than an asset to be exploited.
COPYRIGHT 1985 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Rones, Philip L.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1985
Words:887
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