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Needed: 50 Shades of Graying Workers

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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Barclays plans to offer apprenticeships in banking to people 50 and older by the end of the year. That's a rational response to an aging workforce and the impact of demographics in developed economies, and one that more companies around the world will need to replicate. It's great news for those who find themselves unemployed or in need of a change. It's also a less than cheery reminder that retirement is becoming an outdated concept as more people stay employed well past the age when previous generations were sliding on their slippers for most of the day.

Rethinking Retirement

A third of the U.K. population has already reached or passed their half century, while the number of Britons over 65 will rise by almost 50 percent by 2032, according to the charity Age UK. By then, more than 23 percent of the population will be past the traditional retirement age, up from less than 18 percent currently.

In parallel with those demographic trends, workforce participation by senior citizens has been climbing in recent years:

Similar trends are evident in the U.S., where a fifth of the population is forecast to be at least 65 by the middle of the century, up from about 13 percent currently. Already, 50 percent more women over 65 are working than two decades ago, while among the population as a whole, 16.2 percent are working rather than in retirement, according to the Census Bureau. Among men, even the over 70s have been increasingly staying employed:

"Older people have more life experience, and can show more empathy," Mike Thompson, the head of apprenticeships at Barclays, told the Sunday Times. "They will have had a mortgage, they will know how to budget and how to support customers."

(They're also less likely to have an appetite for rigging currency rates, mis-selling loan insurance to retail customers and unnecessary interest-rate swaps to corporate clients, lying to clients about dark pools in U.S. equity trading, or any of the other misdeeds that have required Barclays and its peers to pay billions in fines. Which kind of begs the question of why any sensible person in their 50s would want a banking apprenticeship, but I digress.)

The bigger reason employers should be recruiting from the older generation is to align their staffing demographic with their customer profiles. Let's face it, few of the millennials currently juggling multiple jobs to repay their student loans will ever be in a position to accumulate the property and capital base of the baby boomers. Unless your business is selling cutting-edge gadgets with screens and buttons too small for rheumy eyes and arthritic fingers, the upper end of the age scale probably offers greater profit potential.

The more your employees and your customers have in common, the better your business is likely to do. Barclays, for example, received almost 151,000 complaints in the third quarter. That works out to more than 1,600 unhappy customers per day, or a staggering 2,300 disgruntled missives arriving every business day. I bet if you profiled the complainants, their ages would be heavily biased toward the upper end of the scale. And I'll also bet that the person they want dealing with their grievance is someone with wrinkles earned in acquiring worldliness, rather than a fresh-faced graduate trainee. Barclays is to be applauded for its initiative; other companies everywhere should watch and learn. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net