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Rethinking the Role of Older Workers in Small Business

In our digital age, intergenerational training teams utilize older workers teaching the nuances of their craft and younger people showing how to use new tools, including social media.
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A variety of simultaneous trends are keeping more Americans in the workforce longer, and a newly published series of guides suggests that we should not only encourage that trend but think differently about how older workers can most benefit the workforce. It's important to our nation's well being and the public's health that older Americans have the opportunity to stay engaged, playing active roles - at work or in their communities - for as long as possible. These guides underscore that there are strategic opportunities for older workers to strengthen America's workforce - and especially the small businesses that constitute 99.7 percent of U.S. employer firms, according to the Small Business Administration.

The Age Smart Industry Guides - available free at Age Smart Employer NYC - are published by the Columbia Aging Center at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. They draw upon interviews with more than 100 small business owners and advisers in New York City, conducted under the direction of Ruth Finkelstein, ScD, Associate Director of the Columbia Aging Center. The interviews illuminate multiple ways older workers can benefit small businesses. These roles transcend simply "aging in place"; in fact, they optimize the skills of older workers to benefit small businesses more broadly, as the examples below reveal.

Many small businesses engage older workers, for instance, in training the next generation of employees. In manufacturing, more than 600,000 jobs have been added in the United States in the last four years and more expansion is projected, according to the Manufacturing Institute. And, with far fewer skilled trade workers entering the workforce to replace the large cohort of Baby Boomers retiring, training of a strong future pipeline is a high priority. Older workers can play a crucial role in that regard both in their ongoing work and as they approach retirement.

Older employees are often key to maintaining continuity, business relationships, and customer service. Older employees working in brick-and-mortal retail and service operations, for instance, can share their experience and knowledge of individual customer behaviors over time.

Intergenerational teams are also especially valuable: across industries, intergenerational teams are found to be more productive. In our digital age, intergenerational training teams utilize older workers teaching the nuances of their craft and younger people showing how to use new tools, including social media. Further, businesses and workers also cite incidents in which machines broke or could not handle a particular job, and older workers relied on their experience to proceed with previously familiar manual processes.

Older employees are also a vital source of institutional history and sometimes even become part of the brand. In New York City, older workers at world-renowned piano-maker Steinway & Sons underscore the fact that the products are hand-made, custom-made and carry a history that stretches back to 1853.

These are all key strategic roles for older employees that can make America's small businesses stronger than ever at a time when their success is vital. As the Small Business Administration reports, 64 percent of net new private-sector jobs in the United States are generated by small businesses.

Older workers can and should play a more crucial role than ever in supporting small businesses. It's in the interest of our nation's economic and public health.

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