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NH's older population having an impact on economy, workforce

By GRETCHEN M. GROSKY
New Hampshire Union Leader

May 13. 2017 6:12PM
Attendees talk during an AARP workshop about searching for a job in the digital age in Manchester on Friday. See Page B3. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Susan Douglas is looking for a job. After decades in the hair business, she doesn’t like what she’s seeing in today’s barber shops so she wants a change. With her husband’s recent retirement, he qualifies for Medicare, but she is too young to be eligible and is now in need of health insurance.

She says she sees a lot of age discrimination: She will talk to temporary placement agencies on the phone and be told of opportunities, but when she walks in with her rich, silver hair, she is told all those jobs are filled.

“They think because you’re old you should be put out to pasture,” Douglas said. “Some of us are out there not for fun money or beer money, but to make money for living expenses.”

New Hampshire stands with Maine and Vermont as having the top three oldest populations in the country, and it’s showing in the workforce, experts say. In 2015, 4,600 of the 22,000 new hirees in New Hampshire were 65 years or older, said labor economist and workforce analyst John Dorrer.

Dorrer warns businesses in northern New England to pay attention to this silver shift and to find ways to embrace, encourage and capitalize on senior workers like Douglas — or feel the brunt of a downturn.

“This will have a direct impact on our economic performance. This means our economy goes in reverse,” he said, adding that just one full-time worker contributes on average $55,000 a year to gross domestic production.

The Tri-State Learning Collaborative on Aging brought together leaders from the social service, business and public policy arenas from the three states to talk about the aging workforce, offer suggestions on how to become more age-friendly, and how to use the seasoned set to an economic advantage. It called the forum “Gray is the New Green.”

“Employers and public policymakers need to work together and work pretty damn fast,” said Dorrer, who also teaches at the University of Maine at Orono. “(Employers) have to see the gravity of the situation because they are going to get run over if they don’t act.”

How old is old?

The definition of an older worker is much younger than one might think. Liz Vogel, CEO of Dots Inc. in Vermont, which helps employees and companies with transitions into retirement, said the definition of an older worker is now 40 or above.

Each of the northern New England states has median ages exceeding 40. Maine’s population is oldest at 43.6, followed by Vermont at 42.2 and New Hampshire iat 41.9, Dorrer said. Today, those over the age of 65 make up 15 percent of New Hampshire’s population, but the New Hampshire Center for Public Policies predicts one-third of the Granite State’s population will be over the age of 65 by the year 2030.

Connie Roy-Czyzowski, vice president of human resources for Northeast Delta Dental in Concord, said they can see the impact every day. She said in the last three years, 64 percent of the company’s new hires were over the age of 40, and 38 percent were over the age of 50. Today, 62 percent of its entire workforce is 50 or older.

“You have to be open to hiring across all generations,” she said.

Recruiting, retention

Dorrer said the population of northern New England isn’t just the oldest, it’s also the whitest, and that’s contributing to the aging workforce. Dorrer said the demographic tends to have lower fertility rates, leading to a two-pronged issue for state economies — businesses want a pipeline of younger employees and they want diversity.

If there aren’t enough of the types of employees they want, these businesses move, and youth follows opportunity.

“Places like the South, these parts of the country have attracted an out-migration of people from New England,” Dorrer said. “If this trend is left unchecked, we are going to see a deflation of our economy, an economy in reverse.”

For older generations, it was a hallmark to stay with a company for a lifetime, retiring with a watch and a pension after years of service.

But today, GenX and millennials say it’s career suicide to stay at a place too long, and now the average job tenure is 4.6 years, with a recent poll showing 76 percent of younger workers were actively looking for other jobs, according to Vogel. Pensions that locked employees into years of service have been replaced by 401(k) plans that travel with employees from job to job.

This region is also home to the lowest unemployment rates in the country, including New Hampshire, with recent figures putting it at 2.6 percent. Dorrer said he recently checked an online job search site and found New Hampshire had 29,000 job postings, of which 7,500 were in health care and social services.

Roy-Czyzowski said her company realizes that with an aging workforce not everyone is looking online for jobs. She said her company uses many traditional forms of recruitment to attract older workers, such as newspaper advertising and paper applications.

“We’re trying to be accessible to them,” she said.

Vogel said this is where having an older workforce can help businesses. She compared a company losing an older worker to “a library burning down. Not only do older employees come with years of experience and established networks, they tend to be more loyal, she said.

Douglas agreed.

“We’re reliable. We’re ‘old-school.’ We grew up wanting to do a good job, to be there every day, to be at work,” she said. “That’s what a good employee does.”

She said older generations, with years of experience and established networks, can help fill immediate openings while sharing experience with younger generations. She pointed to such companies as The Hartford in Connecticut, which offers mentorship programs where older and younger workers are paired to learn from one another, and Atlantic Health in New Jersey, which offers emergency care for employees’ children or elders.

“They see aging as the solution, not the problem,” she said. “We bring a lot of experience and we have to give ourselves credit for that.”

She said there are other benefits of an older workforce.

“Frankly, we have more energy. Women over 50 are at their most creative. We have more friends and colleagues,” she said. “We also tend not to sweat the small stuff.”

Benefitting all

Having an older workforce presents different challenges — things like Millennials who might think its OK for a person to come to work with tongue rings working alongside baby boomers who don’t expect anything less than a shirt and tie.

L.L. Bean’s workforce ranges in age from 15 to 93 with an average age of 49, said Wendy Estabrook, human resources director the Maine retailer. She said Bean finds younger and older generations of workers are looking for the same types of benefits “but for different reasons.”

She said the company offers flexible schedules, which help the mom of young kids or the daughter of an aging parent. L.L. Bean also offers flexible-spending accounts to employees for both child care and elder care.

The company also offers two hours of consulting services for people dealing with putting a parent in assisted living or estate planning and discounted rates if a person needs more than two hours.

For those who come back to work after retirement or just work seasonally, their name badge identifies them as someone who is experienced and someone who should be recognized.

Northeast Delta Dental also offers numerous programs, including flexible schedules and compressed work weeks, said Roy-Czyzowski. She said the company offers employee assistance programs to help people dealing with finding elder care for loved ones. It also has a gym on-site, offers wellness programs and seminars on retirement.

She said the company also helps people who may not quite be ready for retirement to wind down their schedule to prepare for having all that time off. It helps the company, because they can retain employees longer and the up-and-coming retirees like it.

“People really enjoy the phase-out,” she said. “People are worried about waking up with nothing to do.”

She said the biggest benefit the older workforce offers is a positive workplace where people’s differences are embraced.

“If you create the buzz and encourage people to talk about their differences, you’re less likely to have problems on the other end,” she said. “If you’re really clear about everyone being accountable and respectful in the workforce, people won’t disappoint you.”

Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday news report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Gretchen Grosky would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at ggrosky@unionleader.com or (603) 206-7739. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging


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