“Older workers tire more easily” and other myths an Atlantic Magazine article promotes

Over lunch, I usually like to read “pleasant” stuff. All day I read reports on poverty or failing education policy, or how on earth we’re going to feed 9 billion people (a new topic!). So at lunch, on my break, I like to dabble in Vanity Fair or the New Yorker’s cartoons. But today I decided to read the Atlantic. Mistake.

As I mentioned a few weeks back, I’m doing a lot of work with the MacArthur Foundation’s Network on Aging in Society–a decidedly impressive group of doctors, economists, and other scientists— so a headline in the Atlantic caught my eye. “Europe’s Real Crisis: The Continents problems are as much demographic as financial,” by Megan McArdle. (Yes, I’m a nerd).

I figured I’d dip in and see if there was anything I could learn about the aging population in Europe that might apply to the Aging Network. It started out well enough, but about halfway through, I started to detect the “Kony” effect: simplifying something to grab eyeballs only. Granted, this topic of aging and its effects on the economy is not exactly an attention grabber, so you need to make it palatable. But, as much as I respect journalists, this one got to me.

A couple of flags went up in reading McArdle’s two-paragraph trot through 200 years of demographic shifts, but I’ll give her that. It’s kinda dull after all. But then she started in on the “Morningburg/Twilight City” analogy and it was downhill from there.

She uses these analogies to illustrate how good it is to have a majority of young workers and how perilous for an economy it is to have a majority of old people–those old-heads who cling to jobs and prevent young people from advancing, who are risk-averse and hate change, who aren’t as productive on the job, and who start up businesses that will never expand beyond their hobby clientele.

In Twilight City, time horizons are shorter—people aren’t looking for projects that will make them rich or famous 20 years from now. They are interested in conserving what they have. That’s mostly rational, given Twilighters’ life stage; but studies show that older people worry more than younger ones about losses and are therefore especially averse to risk. Twilighters also tire more easily and need more time off for illness, so hours worked slowly decline each year. Wages stay steady, however; Twilighters, like most people, get very angry if you try to cut their salary.

That makes Twilighters expensive—so when they lose a job, finding another is tough.  As a result, Twilighters tend to cling fiercely to their positions, and may block younger workers from getting a foothold in the labor market.

The difficulty of reemployment contributes to Twilight City’s surprisingly high, but somewhat deceptive, rate of entrepreneurship. Looking closely, we find that businesses there are disproportionately owned by semi-retirees who have hung out a consulting shingle, or become part-time caterers, or invested in a hobby business like an antique store. These businesses typically don’t have much growth potential, in part because cautious Twilighters won’t (or can’t) borrow money for expansion.

There are so many wrong presumptions there I don’t know where to start. But here’s a few, with what I’ve learned from the Network:

  • Older workers need more time off for illness: I’m not sure what her sources are, but disability rates have been rising for young workers and falling for older workers. Granted, disability is a little different from “time off for illness” but the overall trend here is one of healthier 50+ workers and unhealthier younger workers.  The sharpest aggregate growth in disability rates—50%— occurred among those aged 30-39 between 1984 and 1996 (they’d be age 46-55 today).
  • Older workers block younger workers from getting a foothold in the labor market. That is just patently untrue. The “lump of labor” theory just doesn’t hold up. The economy expands with new businesses and new job opportunities. It’s not a finite thing. There aren’t only x number of jobs in the economy to hoard.
  • Twilighters tire more easily. Ok, maybe if we were all doing manual labor on the farm, but come on. Tire more easily?

This pitting of older and younger workers is dangerous. It foments intergenerational battles that don’t need to happen. In fact, older workers complement younger workers in many ways. Younger workers may take more risks and try new things, but innovation is not necessarily a purview of the young only. And — the experience and emotional steadiness that comes with age are a nice counterpoint to more youthful rashness.

Granted, having a graying society is not ideal, but to portray it in these simplistic either/or ways is disingenuous at best and at worst prevents any serious discussion of how to change our social institutions to adapt to this inevitability.

That’s what David Canning more or less tells McArdle later in the article:

“Aging is a good thing,” Canning says. “It means health improvements and longer lives. We only think it’s a bad thing because we’re trying to hang on to these institutions. We should be welcoming these changes, but changing our institutions to match.”

Sadly, he gets no more time than that. The Network on Aging in Society is grappling those very issues– how do we recast work, for example, to increase productivity? How do we rethink our institutions of learning so they can better accommodate the need for life-long learning? How should we rethink Medicare and Social Security to encourage longer careers?  How can we tap the potential of elderly volunteers in more effective ways?

Stay tuned: I’ll be writing about them more as I dig in and learn  more.

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4 responses to ““Older workers tire more easily” and other myths an Atlantic Magazine article promotes

  1. In describing “youthful rashness” in your post, I find that you are doing as great a disservice to younger generations as you believe the article did to older ones. Many younger workers work hard and responsibly because the current state of the economy means that we can’t afford to take risks that might lose us our jobs.

    Furthermore, you seem determined to promote the idea that older workers are of more value to the economy than younger ones. While this may simply be a bias towards your argument, it does seem a little irrational. Older workers, while valuable, are not the future of the economy. They will eventually age out of the workforce.

    Meanwhile, by placing emphasis on an unequal balance of young and old in the workforce – a balance which, to my knowledge, has never before occurred in America – our economy is damaging the careers and future earning potential of an entire generation, an action which can only have negative economic consequences for young and old alike further down the road by hampering economic growth once it is that generation’s turn to be “old.”

  2. Deborah Edmonds

    Thank you for fighting the myths of older workers and providing an additional insight of how the generations need to adapt and learn from each other. I will be looking for more of your articles.

  3. We work smarter not harder. Young people need us “Twilighters” if for no other reason than we have “been there done that” they can learn from our experience and vice versa. Most of our growth has been from productivity increases and is why we are still the largest manufacturer in the world.
    As we have discussed here in the past, we need to rethink the demands of our economy and retool our educational system to better reflect that reality.

    • I think aside from the economic impact of discrimination of the over 50 crowd is the value loss of removing diversity of perspective from work cultures. As a youngster growing up I learned from my elders. What I liked about what they did and what I did NOT like about what they did. I used to pick their brains regarding leadership, process and risk management.

      Employers denying access based on age prejudice are hurting themselves by removing the diverse cross generational learning element. That it is impossible to prove makes it safe to do, but it is simply not very smart. However, the world is not in the shape it is in because our leaders are smart and/or diligent. Self absorbed and personal agenda driven, yes…smart,..not so much.

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