We know that Maine’s workforce is aging. In a nation where nearly one-quarter of the labor force is projected to be 55 or older by 2018, our state has been deemed the “grayest” of them all.
While we might be aware that older workers play an increasingly important role in Maine’s economy, what we hear less about is how these workers, who are so critical to our state, fare in their workplaces. Older workers are an important resource for Maine and their well-being in the workplace should be of interest to us all.
My 2009 survey of nearly 200 older workers in Maine shows that, by and large, these workers enjoy their jobs but that for some, the workplace is not a friendly climate.
First, the good news. Many older workers enjoy their jobs. In the survey I conducted of Maine workers ages 62 to 87, far more people wrote about having positive experiences at work than negative ones. Workers who reported positive experiences said that working helped them maintain their independence, gave them a chance to socialize, provided them an opportunity to learn and share their knowledge, kept them busy and made them feel useful and helpful.
One woman shared on her survey, “My co-workers are fun to work with, and I enjoy being able to earn some very much needed and appreciated money. I also appreciate the opportunity to learn new things.”
A man said that he enjoys “independence and control over my workplace and duties.”
While older workers generally report positive experiences on the job, there are notable patterns in the harmful experiences they report. A significant number of older workers report feeling undervalued and bullied at work. Further, many older workers do not speak up about their negative experiences, nor do those who witness bullying or harassment of older workers intervene on their behalf.
Nearly one-quarter of those responding to the survey, which asked about 21 specific negative workplace behaviors, said they had work contributions totally ignored by colleagues and managers, that they had been left out of decisions that affect their work, and that they had been talked down to by co-workers or bosses.
One common thread that each of these experiences shares is a sense of feeling devalued and ignored in the workplace. These findings differ from reports of younger workers who describe higher rates of sexual harassment but fewer incidences of being ignored or left out.
Not only did older workers report feeling devalued, ignored and in some cases bullied, very few of them told others about their experiences. In fact, most of those who reported a negative experience did not talk with anyone about it. Not only did they not report their experiences to authorities at work, they often didn’t discuss their negative experiences with family or friends either.
Workers’ comments tell us more about the nature and impact of their experiences.
One woman wrote, “Because I was older, the young girls thought I shouldn’t be working, I should be at home waiting to die! They did everything they could to make my life there miserable, and since the boss didn’t try to stop it, I had to be quiet.”
Another wrote, “After about age 60-65 I began to notice that people would sometimes ignore me as though I had become invisible.”
Another said simply, “Younger people think I have no value.”
What can we learn from older workers’ reports, and how can we use them to improve workplace climates for older people in Maine?
First, older workers tend not to discuss their negative workplace experiences with others. Co-workers in particular are an untapped potential source of support for all employees. Educating employers about the importance of nurturing positive and supportive co-worker relationships could be an important first step toward improving the climate for all workers.
Reminding employers and employees of the value, knowledge and experience that older workers bring to the table is also important. In the words of one older worker, “Pay attention to your older colleagues! You might learn a thing or two.”
Finally, employee training should emphasize the importance of co-worker support and bystander intervention. We’ve learned from experts on bullying in schools that bystanders play a critical role in putting an end to bullying. Why not apply these lessons to the workplace to improve the experiences of older and younger workers alike?
Amy Blackstone is an associate professor at the University of Maine and chairwoman of the sociology department. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.