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Challenging the Expiration Age: Embracing Older Workers in Jamaica

Life expectancy has increased, the workforce continues to age and many qualified and older workers lament the barriers they face due to ageism and misconceptions. An expiration date typically identifies a date after which something should no longer be used. Whilst expiration dates are a practical necessity for perishable goods, should this be paralleled in the workplace, by a notion of an “expiration age”? The nature of work is changing due to rapid technological advancement, increased competition and the rise of knowledge workers. Whilst there is no consensus on the age of an older worker, for this paper older workers “include persons who are 50 years of age and older who are engaged in productive work” [1]. I have observed a changing of the guard in organizations where the older executive leadership are being offered early retirement and making way for younger persons popularly referred to in the Jamaican vernacular as the ‘young and bright’. Additionally, I have observed middle-aged workers who have been made redundant struggle to find new job opportunities. It has also been observed that when older workers leave, the dynamics of the organization can also change due to a lack of succession planning, knowledge transfer, and differing generational values. This has piqued my interest as to whether there is an unwritten expiration age for employment based on ageism.  The irony is that whilst there are complaints about the younger generation (Gen Z), there are also concerns about the older generation (Gen X). With the oldest millennial hitting 43 this year, they are also not too far off from soon being considered an ‘older worker’. Is there an opportunity to increase awareness of age discrimination, reduce negative stereotypes of older workers, and demonstrate the value they can still add to the organization? The purpose of this article is to provoke thought about the viability and challenges of employing older workers.

The Changing Demographics

Data from the Worldbank on life expectancy at birth, suggests that life expectancy in Caribbean small states is 72 years old [2]. I took a deeper dive and examined life expectancy data between 1960 and 2022 for Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. The findings were rather interesting. Between 1960 and 2022, life expectancy in Barbados increased by 20% Jamaica 11% and Trinidad and Tobago by 19%.

Life Expectancy at Birth;
Source:https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN?
end=2009&locations=S3&name_desc=false&start=1960

In last month’s article, I explored understanding Gen Z and I pulled data from STATIN on Jamaica’s labour force by age group and identified that 52% of our labour force is between ages 25 and 44. This month, I used the same data but explored it from a different angle. I identified that whilst the largest group is between ages 25 and 44, the growth in the number of workers has increased by approximately 3.5% in the 45 to 54 and 55 to 64 age groups respectively between July 2022 and October 2023.

Age GroupJul-22Oct-23% Change
14 – 24        207,200        208,0000.4%
25 – 44        677,900        677,300-0.1%
45 – 54        255,600        264,3003.4%
55 – 64        147,200        152,6003.7%
Total    1,287,900    1,302,2001.1%
Jamaica’s Labour Force by Age Group as at October 2023; Data Source: STATIN

This raises a few questions, are these new entrants or individuals already in the workforce getting older? Additionally, it makes me ponder about how we view the traditional retirement age. In Jamaica, the normal retirement age for several organizations is 65 [3]. With many individuals choosing or needing to work beyond the conventional retirement age, is this concept of traditional retirement age becoming obsolete? If yes, are we preparing for these changes?

In an article published in the Jamaica Observer, Grace G Mclean, a financial advisor and retirement specialist at BPM Financial Limited also raises the question if 65 is too early to retire. She states,

“With nearly 80 per cent of the Jamaican working population without a pension plan, the retirement crisis in Jamaica is disturbing.” [3].

Whilst she was taking it from the financial perspective, it implies that older workers may need to work longer not out of choice but out of obligation. According to Professor Eldemire-Shearer,

“Financial security in old age is made more necessary by the increased health needs.” [4].

Will there be a place in the Jamaican organization for older workers, especially those who worked in clerical, administrative or junior roles?

The population in Jamaica is ageing, and the fertility rate among childbearing women has declined, combined with the challenges of outward migration. This will potentially impact the workforce.

Sustainable employability

Maintaining sustainable employability is important as our population continues to age. There has been an increased interest in the topic of sustainable employability. Sustainable employability means

“that, throughout their working lives, workers can achieve tangible opportunities in the form of a set of capabilities. They also enjoy the necessary conditions that allow them to make a valuable contribution through their work, now and in the future while safeguarding their health and welfare. This requires, on the one hand, a work context that facilitates this for them and on the other, the attitude and motivation to exploit these opportunities.” [5]

It is an important concept to explore as currently, there is no legislation in Jamaica to protect the worker if he/she claims they have been subject to discrimination based on age.

Goštautaitė and Šerelyte conducted research in three European countries to examine how workers may maintain their employability at an older age. The impetus for the study was the increasing automation threatening job security and the maintenance of lifelong employability becoming a challenge for many individuals. This study was published in May 2024, and it was found that the perceived risk of automation, may further worsen the negative relationship between age and employability. Mitigating the negative relationship between age and employability required embracing lifelong learning and personal belief in the ability to complete a task or achieve a goal (self-efficacy). [6]

These findings are interesting as some perceptions and stereotypes of older workers include:

  1. Lack of technological skills
  2. Lack of ambition
  3. Less productive
  4. Resistant to change
  5. Physically limited
  6. Outdated skills

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has been discussing the issue of older workers since the 1990s and it has been suggested that lifelong learning, flexibility and health are three important components needed by older workers. [7] Lifelong learning is aligned with the findings of Goštautaitė and Šerelyte. Lifelong learning

“allows older persons to adapt to new technologies, increase digital work compliance, and increase self-confidence and sense of worth” [8]. 

It would be interesting to replicate this study in Jamaica to find out if embracing lifelong learning and self-efficacy mitigates the negative relationship between age and employability locally.

The Business Case for Embracing Older Workers

A study was published with lessons from 100+ small New York City Businesses on the advantages of retaining and hiring older workers. Some of the advantages included the following:

  1. Older workers are skilled and experienced. They bring knowledge that cannot be taught. A manager put it this way, “Young people have a can-do attitude and make mistakes; old people know what questions to ask.”
  2. They have a strong work ethic usually being the first to arrive, remaining focused throughout the day and rarely missing work.
  3. They retain a business’s knowledge and networks
  4. The perceived technology gap can be overcome by providing them with the requisite support and pairing workers with stronger and weaker technology skills together.
  5. Older workers prove that the best teams are multigenerational
  6. Older workers play a critical role in training the next generation of workers.
  7. They provide customers with consistency and personal attention. [9]

There are biases and misconceptions surrounding older workers which need to be explored as there are unique perspectives that they bring to the table, such as institutional knowledge, problem-solving abilities and mentorship potential.

Challenging Stereotypes and Biases

A Gleaner editorial suggested that older people with skills should be engaged to address labour shortages in Jamaica versus the idea being explored of importing labour. [11] However, it acknowledges that this idea may be met with resentment based on ageism against older people in the workplace.

Dr. Robert Butler is credited for coining the term ageism in 1968 which he defines as

“those negative attitudes and practices that lead to discrimination against the aged” [10].

He described ageism as a disease which can be treated by using antidotes to address widely held myths about older people. One such antidote identified was equipping persons with the right knowledge.

The ILO has been exploring ageing and labour markets for older workers for years. A few of their suggestions for promoting the employment of older workers includes, adjusting the retirement age to increase labour supply, labour market training for older workers, increasing workplace flexibility, a supportive legal framework and creating conditions for older workers to continue in employment. [7]

Conclusion

The purpose of this article is to provoke thought about the viability and challenges of employing older workers. The reality is that our population is ageing, the fertility rate has decreased, people are living longer, there is a call for more workers and migration issues persist. This calls for us to closely examine our attitudes to the employability of older workers. It is crucial to consider: Are we truly leveraging the full potential of our workforce by embracing age diversity? Are we inadvertently perpetuating age-based biases and stereotypes that hinder the contributions of older workers? Are our workplace policies, practices, and environments inclusive and accommodating for employees of all ages?

We are aware of the changing demographics. What are we putting in place to start proactively addressing some of the possible issues? Should we redefine employability at all ages, moving to sustainable employability wherein we focus and support people based on the lifelong career journey?

It is time to embrace a cultural shift towards valuing and respecting the contributions of all workers, regardless of age. The expiration age for employment should be a concept confined to the past, replaced by a forward-looking vision that celebrates the diverse experiences, wisdom, and perspectives that older workers bring to the table.

References

  1. Gillin, E. Kent., Alan Salmoni and Lynn Shaw. 2008. “Chapter 15 – Ergonomics of Aging.” In Ergonomics for Therapists 3rd edition by Karen Jacobs, 265 – 276. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-032304853-8.50018-4
  2. Life expectancy at birth, total (years) – Caribbean small states – https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN?end=2009&locations=S3&name_desc=false&start=1960
  3. Mclean, Grace G. 2024. “Is age 65 too early to retire?” Jamaica Observer, April 21, 2024. https://www.jamaicaobserver.com/2024/04/21/age-65-early-retire/
  4. Eldemire-Shearer, D. 2008. Ageing: the response yesterday, today and tomorrow. West Indian Medical  Journal 57(6). Retrieved from http://caribbean.scielo.org/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0043-31442008000600009&lng=en.
  5. Alcover, Carlos-Maria, Greta Mazzetti and Michela Vignoli. 2021. Sustainable employability in the mid and late career: An integrative review. Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology 37(3):157-174. https://doi.org/10.5093/jwop2021a16
  6. Goštautaitė, Bernadeta and Migle Šerelytė. 2024. Decreasing employability with age? The role of automation risk, lifelong learning and occupational mobility. Baltic Journal of Management, 19(2):145-162. https://doi.org/10.1108/BJM-11-2022-0419
  7. Samorodov, Alexander. Ageing and labour markets for older workers. https://www.ilo.org/publications/ageing-and-labour-markets-older-workers
  8. Eldemire-Shearer, Denise. 2024. “Ageing population and a decreasing workforce.” Jamaica Gleaner, January 7, 2024. https://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/focus/20240107/denise-eldemire-shearer-ageing-population-and-decreasing-workforce
  9. Finkelstein, Ruth, and Dorian Block.10 Advantages of Retaining and Hiring Older Workers: Lessons from NYC Small Businesses. https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/research/others/age-smart-employer/resources/guides/advantages-older-workers
  10. Butler, Robert .N. 1989. Dispelling Ageism: The Cross-Cutting Intervention. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 503(1):138 – 147. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716289503001011
  11. 2024. “Editorial: Use skills of older workers”. Jamaica Gleaner, January 9, 2024. https://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/commentary/20240109/editorial-use-skills-older-workers

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