Mark Miller

The Great Recession is pushing older workers to postpone retirement, but will employers accommodate them?

Demographics dictate that the workforce will age in the years ahead. By 2016, one-third of the U.S. workforce will be age 50 or older, compared with 28 percent in 2007, according to AARP.

But the current brutal jobs climate raises questions about the future prospects of older workers. The jobless rate for adults age 55 to 64 has more than doubled since November 2007, just before the recession began; in July, 7.2 percent of workers age 55 to 64 were out of work. That's a troubling number, although it's still about 2.5 percentage points lower than the overall national rate of 9.7 percent in August.

Even in a tough economy, older workers are valued in some industries. Technology-oriented companies that depend on experienced scientists and engineers are worried about brain drain as the baby boomer generation retires. Many are scrambling to implement retention programs aimed at keeping these high-value knowledge workers on the job as long as possible. Some offer flexible work arrangements to accommodate the changing lifestyle needs of older employees.

Companies say older workers are among their most productive, and that this offsets their higher compensation and benefit expenses. One study several years ago for AARP, for example, attempted to quantify productivity and cost advantages of retaining and hiring older workers by showing that turnover and training costs can exceed 50 percent of a worker's annual salary, while higher compensation and benefit costs for older workers were only marginally higher than for younger people.

At the same time, there's strong evidence of age discrimination by employers on the hiring and firing side. As I noted last month, age discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were at a record high in 2008, and researchers have been able to establish that it's much harder for older workers to land job interviews.

Against that backdrop, it's instructive to see employers compete for the honor of being age-friendly. AARP conducts an annual contest culminating in the "Best Employers for Workers over 50" award; the 2009 winners were announced earlier this month.

The AARP award offers a snapshot of the most age-friendly large employers in the country. Employers submit comprehensive applications, answering questions about their human resources practices and policies. The selection criteria include recruiting practices; opportunities for on-the-job training; education and career development; flexible work arrangements; and employee and retiree benefits, such as pensions.

One lesson I draw from the winners' list is that best employment practices for older workers are being implemented in a somewhat narrow range of economic sectors. This year, 40 percent of the top 50 come from education, government and the non-profit sector. The financial service sector was another big winner, grabbing 20 percent of the age-friendly awards.

Some of the names popping up at the top of the list include Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and S.C. Johnson and Son, Inc. After that, it's a potpourri of technology and service companies. I've posted more on the breakout at, and you can peruse the full AARP list at

What's the best way to identify prospective employers that are age-friendly? Helen Dennis, an expert on aging, employment and retirement who consults with businesses on issues related to older workers, advises older job applicants to assess the age-friendliness of potential employers by looking at these factors:

--Recruiting process. Is an employer actively reaching out to older workers?

--Marketing signals. Does the employer portray older workers in its marketing and advertising materials?

--Training opportunities. Does the employer provide opportunities for continuing learning and retraining on the job?

--Benefits. Does the employer offer benefits like eldercare, and continuing education outside the workplace?

--Advancement. Is there a clear track record at the company of advancement for older workers?

Beyond those factors, she says employer attitudes toward older workers vary greatly by industry, but adds that most are simply looking for the best skills and performance at the best price.

"It's easy to get preoccupied with age, but there really are several realities co-existing at the same time. Can you do the job? Will you be my biggest return on investment among the candidates I'm considering? Do you understand the company's core values and goals for the short and long term? How can you help the company reach those goals?"