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Why companies need to start hiring older workers

Hans-Paul Bürkner at Davos in 2010

For the last few years, management consultants have earned a reputation as Bobs: suits who come in with the aim of finding costs to slice and workers to axe. The nickname comes from “Office Space,” in which two consultants, both named Bob, descend on a company and take over a conference room where they weed out workers.

Hans-Paul Bürkner is no Bob. The CEO of Boston Consulting Group, Bürkner’s current focus is not on how to trim people but how to keep workers working longer. We talked in advance of his panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, entitled “Redefining Work.” I assumed he wanted to discuss perks and committing companies to socially beneficial work – the latter being one of the ways BCG placed No. 2 this year on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For list. Instead he focused on retirement: why it’s bad for companies and for people.

“We have to give people a chance in their 60s and early 70s to continue to work,” he said. “We have to have different opportunities for them to expand their talents and to make the best use of their talents.” As populations age in places like Europe and Japan — a country that boasts the highest percentage of elderly in the world — society turns top heavy, with young workers supporting the masses of retirees. Of course, economists have been warning of this for decades. Now Bürkner, who is 58, says it’s time for companies to take it upon themselves to craft a solution — and to do for their own self interest.

In a time when most companies can barely bring themselves to even open a position, it’s hard to see why they should shoulder this extra requirement. Bürkner says it’s a matter of what BCG calls “demographic risk management” – looking at your current employment picture and mapping out where the chasms are going to open up in a few years. He points to the skills that go out the window when workers leave or are fired. And he argues that some aging workers leave with knowledge and training that will never be replaced – because schools aren’t preparing students for the kind of jobs that are being cut. Like any kind of risk management, the key is gaming out how certain decisions could bring unintended consequences.

Bürkner’s call is an important one for hiring managers. They should be considering not just cheap, young labor, but workers who bring a lifetime’s worth of skills.

But this belief has to go beyond the human resources chief. What Bürkner wants is a bolder version of the flexible workplace. He wants aging workers who are being passed by or taking up positions needed to keep younger talent to be shifted to essential training jobs or to have their hours cut slowly over a decade — a “gliding path” to retirement. Most of all he wants executives to look at their enterprises and spot creative uses for current workers: “Rather than saying this is the path you can go — you are in a box and the box moves this way — you need different paths.” The other side of that compact is that workers have to be willing to leave the desks and labs that they’ve grown old in and shift to new positions with real responsibilities and value.

Of course, part of the problem will be changing the perception of retirement. Bürkner thinks it’s time for a global rebranding of the concept: “You can see this in a negative way: ‘I have to work and slug away for the rest of your life.’ Or you can say ‘I’m still productive and can continue to contribute.’” The solution is to quit making retirement seem like a brass ring worth grasping at: “Not working is not a merit in itself,” he says.

At some point, the conversation in the developed world will move away from just getting people employed to making sure the right people are employed the right way. And this will mean creatively and analytically looking at all heads – even those that have gone gray.