Most journalists who write about outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi naturally focus on her politics and policies. And most Americans in this divided country seem to have a binary view of her: She’s either loved or despised. This column is different from all that.
This column is about a senior citizen who gets up each day and tackles one of the toughest jobs around. Not for money, but for the challenge and desire of trying to contribute whatever and wherever she can. Who, at age 82, years after most people have retired, continues to see value and honor in holding a job.
Whatever one’s political views, this is an ethos to be admired. American culture tends to place youth and beauty on a pedestal, while devaluing age and the wisdom and experience it conveys. We are fools for doing so.
The argument that some politicians are too old to serve is a legitimate one. President Biden is 80. Former President Trump is 76. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is 80. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), in his final hours as House Majority Leader, is 83. How old is too old to serve? Voters decide such things. But the broader question as it relates to age is this: How old is too old to work?
From a labor standpoint, we need all the senior workers we can get. Even as some Americans fear immigrants are taking our jobs, the latest data from the Labor Department says that there are 10.3 million job openings in the U.S. The labor-force participation rate (the percentage of workforce that has a job or is looking for one) is 62.1%, and the overall employment-population ratio (the percentage of the total working age of the workforce employed to total working age population) is 59.9%. And a birthrate that has been falling for a generation—though it ticked up slightly in 2021—suggests the pipeline of future workers entering the labor force will be narrow.
So yes, if seniors want to work and are able to do so, employers should welcome them with open arms. Too bad this isn’t often the case, and the fact that it’s not is because many employers are penny-wise but pound-foolish.
Remember what I said about how age is devalued in this country? There’s a longstanding stigma about hiring older workers. The old saws are these: They want too much money (who doesn’t?). They can’t keep up with new skills and technology (says who?). I’m probably painting with a broad brush here, but what I think this stuff really means is that companies are just looking for plug-and-play employees; they don’t want to invest in workers or train them. Younger workers, it is thought, are cheaper, probably more knowledgeable about the latest technology and so forth. There’s something to these generalities, but the problem, as I’ve mentioned, is that there are 10 million job openings in this country. There aren’t enough younger workers. The fact that there aren’t helps explain the sharp increases in wages over the past few years. Employers are paying up to get whoever they can.
But after paying up to plug in younger workers, what happens? Those younger workers are likely to bolt. A report by Gallup found that millennials are the “least engaged generation in the workplace,” and three times more likely to switch jobs than non-millennials. This turnover, Gallup estimates, costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion annually. But it’s seniors who are too expensive? I don’t buy it.
Older workers, meanwhile, are more likely to stick around. What company wouldn’t want to benefit from this loyalty, not to mention wisdom, experience and stability? These are attributes that—while hard to quantify as one can a salary—can add value to any enterprise. If any training is needed to learn a new skill, so be it.
So here’s to older workers—like Nancy Pelosi—wherever they are. Hospitals, classrooms, an airport gate agent like the one I encountered in Atlanta last week. And the halls of Congress. Anyone of any age with ideas, energy and the desire to contribute should be welcomed in America’s ever-evolving economy. And the rest of us should be grateful that they remain eager to contribute. Perhaps we’ll be in their shoes one day.