The goals of Respectful Exits feel brand new, transformational, and even revolutionary, but at the same time—to me—they are as familiar as family, living on the continuum of my career and life’s work. Respectful Exits is a new nonprofit campaign advocating for the rights and needs of aging workers. We are not calling for “second act” opportunities, but instead for companies to provide a framework for aging employees to stay in the game as long as they need or wish.
The familiarity and continuum comes from my work as Founder and former CEO of Working Mother Media. For decades we advocated for companies to support working mothers with flexible work arrangements, options to phase back from maternity leave, and family friendly policies that would help new moms stay in the game. But we also recognized that—more than policies and programs—it was corporate culture that had to shift, so that working mothers would be perceived as valuable contributors rather than needy employees who didn’t fit the male paradigm. Early adaptors reaped great rewards for the culture shift that they worked hard to achieve.
What Aging Workers Need
Now that I am in the cohort of older workers I see the issues as clearly as I did when I was a young working mother fighting for our rights. We older workers offer deep value to our companies—experience, knowledge, fluidity—but are often perceived as lesser because of our age. We may want to or need to continue in our jobs well past the traditional retirement age of 65, and new ways of working could help us to stay in the game longer—to everyone’s benefit.
What we need are flexible arrangements that work for our circumstances; continued training and development; retirement as an option rather than a requirement or expectation; and programs that let us phase into retirement over a period of months or years when we are ready.
But more than anything, we need a culture shift that acknowledges us as the valuable contributors we are. This culture shift will require training for leaders and managers on combating ageism. Companies will need to build institutional enthusiasm for aging workers and knowledge about solutions that work for them. Diversity and Inclusion departments will want to examine how inclusive they are of older workers.
The Voice for Aging Workers
For this type of change to occur, aging workers themselves must become involved, the same way we working mothers advocated for our value and our solutions. If working mothers had not taken up the banner of flexible work, child care, and maternity leave, we would not have gained ground. Aging workers need to ask for flexible work, lead the call for phased retirement, request training and development, and insist that they be recognized for their ongoing contributions to their workplaces.
Respectful Exits will be organizing aging workers in companies and communities. We will be providing a central resource for collaborative work on these issues. We will be amplifying the voices of aging workers through social media, research, public relations, events, writing, video, and email. Just as millions of working mothers got involved through Working Mother magazine, now millions of aging workers will have their voices heard through the Respectful Exits campaign.
What Success Looks Like
Change on a grand scale is possible. While the battle is far from over, working mothers have gained tremendous respect and support from farsighted companies and strong communities nationwide. In 1986 an exhaustive search turned up only 30 companies who were doing anything to support working moms. Today the Working Mother 100 Best Companies are the best among thousands who have a culture that helps working mothers thrive.
With 40 million baby boomers facing retirement between now and 2029, our battle for the right to stay in the game is needed now—before more vital employees are pushed or persuaded out of their careers. We need to raise awareness of these issues among corporate leaders and the general population; we must become unafraid to talk openly about the issues of aging and the rights of aging employees; and we have to be ready to make significant policy and cultural changes in our companies.
When we make progress we will have a new resource of talent to count on in this age of worker shortages and a healthy group of older consumers who aren’t afraid of spending because they’re still working. Companies who are early adopters of this new paradigm will reap great rewards for their leadership. Advocates and supporters will have the tremendous satisfaction of seeing a cultural shift happen for the largest and most change-embracing generation ever born. Aging workers will gain dignity, respect, vitality and financial security.
I am proud to be on the team leading Respectful Exits, and I look forward to welcoming you to our work. We are seeking volunteers, supporters, knowledge partners, funders and internal corporate champions. Please reach out and let us know that you’d like to get involved.