(Photo by Eva-Katalin, iStockphoto by Getty)

By the year 2024, nearly one quarter of the labor force is projected to be age 55 or older, double what it was in 1994, when the figure was just under 12%. This trend has dramatic implications for how we view the workforce. Age discrimination in the workplace is illegal, but nonetheless a widespread phenomenon. It creates unjust challenges for older individuals in job retention and the securing of new ones. But studies show that a diverse workforce, in terms of gender, race, and age as well, is better for business, and companies will be well-served if they catch on to this.

When it comes to building better diversity and inclusion across a company, age is one element that corporate leaders often disregard or place lower on their priority list, according to Heather Tinsley-Fix, senior advisor of financial resilience at AARP. She spoke last week at From Day One’s July virtual conference, The New Push for Workplace Equity, offering a data-rich presentation on the impact of longevity on how we view talent. In it, she pointed out that limiting work opportunities for the growing older population–as has been the case, to a degree, in recent years–can have dire consequences, starting at the individual level.

“Jobs are a foundational way to address previous inequities,” Tinsley-Fix said. “For many, they’re an access to healthcare. They’re access to good wages. They’re sometimes access to long-term financial planning, and all of those elements impact how long you live.”

Corporate leaders who keep this social impact in mind, as well as the qualities that older workers can bring to the job, can benefit the company as well as society.

Tinsley-Fix cited the results of a PwC global CEO survey, which found that some of the most important skills that companies value in workers are also the hardest to find. In this time of growing automation, these skills–including leadership, emotional intelligence and adaptability–cannot be performed by a machine. Other skills and qualities that often improve with maturity–problem solving, critical thinking, relationship building, empathy, coaching and mentoring–will also be required on the job during the epic shift toward automation.

Heather Tinsley-Fix, senior advisor of financial resilience at AARP (Photo courtesy of AARP)

“These are the kinds of higher-order cognitive skills that take time to develop. You often accrue them through experience, on the job and also interacting with others, and growing as a person,” Tinsley-Fix said. “I note that because older workers tend to have a lot of these skills, and if you’re able to leverage them, particularly in the areas of mentoring and in the transfer of tasks and knowledge, the presence of an age-diverse workforce can actually help instill these skills.” Age diversity in the workforce also improves productivity and performance, which, of course, helps the bottom line.

For some corporate leaders to open up to the idea of hiring older people, they may first have to get over one particular bias, likely rooted in what Tinsley-Fix called “the myth about intelligence and atrophy.” Many believe that the human brain begins a slow decline after about the age of 20, but that’s not true, she said. Citing research by the author Heather E. McGowan, who wrote The Adaptation Advantage Book, about thriving in the future of work, Tinsley-Fix observed, “Our brains remain fluid and plastic all the way up through late ages, as long as we stay active ourselves and stay engaged in our own brain health.” Human ability to concentrate, for example, peaks at age 43, while it isn’t until age 50 that we’re at our peak learning capabilities. “Crystallized intelligence,” which Tinsley-Fix described as “contextual” and generally has to do with “synthesizing information” and “making judgements,” doesn’t peak until age 60.

“Anyone can learn from anyone else, as long as we provide opportunities for them to do that,” Tinsley-Fix said.

Given the fluidity of our brainpower, Tinsley-Fix suggested that, culturally, we should expect career trajectories to move through waves as opposed to climbing up ladders, in what she called “non-linear and multi-stage careers.”

“We’re going to need to have periods where we lean out in order to re-skill, because we know that the landscape of skills continues to change, and we also know we’re going to need to lean out sometimes to care for others, either children or our elders,” Tinsley-Fix said. “The implications of this are pretty big.”

If equity and compensation in the workplace are tethered to title and “experience,” ladder-based equations are easy: The longer an employee has been around, the better their position and pay. But deciding an employee’s standing in a company and their compensation when they’ve taken time to train or attend to personal needs becomes much trickier if restricted by the ladder-based outlook toward career trajectories.

“What if a person’s significance, and the pride they take in their work; what if their compensation, even, was not tied to title?” Tinsley-Fix asked. “We’re going to have to come up with new ways of recognizing and rewarding.”

“And how do we preserve the intent of driving equity if titles are not the only way to measure that?” she asked. It could take “flexible classification models” that allow for “softer exits” and “better re-entries,” Tinsley-Fix said. This would improve upon the “one on-ramp, one off-ramp” system typically in place at companies today.

Tinsley-Fix noted that famed millennial Mark Zuckerberg once said, at age 22, “Young people are just smarter.” But next year, the first millennials–a generation of people who, according to an AARP report, make up 35% of the workforce–will turn 40, which is when they become protected under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

“That’s a big group of your workforce, in addition to Gen-X and Boomers and Traditionalists,” Tinsley-Fix said, all of whom need to work longer to fund their longer, healthier lives.

With millennials increasingly in positions of power, this is a great time for them to show off just how smart they are, and keep a diverse workforce, mindful of the inclusivity of workers from many generations.

Michael Stahl is a New York City-based freelance journalist, writer and editor. You can read more of his work at MichaelStahlWrites.com, follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl, and order his first book, the autobiography of Major League Baseball pitcher Bartolo Colón, at Abrams Books