Don’t be fooled by Hedda Bolgar Bekker’s peppered hair and grandmotherly stature — she is most definitely not your average 102-year-old. Quite the contrary, Bekker still works 20 hours a week as a psychologist and travels to speak about aging and the workforce.
Bekker was one of the 2011 America’s Outstanding Oldest Workers, presented by Experience Works, an organization serving older workers. At an event Wednesday where she received her award, Bekker addressed the issue of aging in the workforce and urged employers to see older workers as assets to an organization.
“I’m calling it aging, because we age from the day we’re born; it’s important to see being old as something that’s not terrible,” she said.
Older workers make up the fastest growing segment of the workforce; by 2014, it’s estimated 21% of employees will be age 55 and older. In an economy where more seniors are delaying retirement or foregoing it altogether, experts say it’s important for employers to not hold biases against older workers.
“The word ‘retirement’ is outdated. Out of economic necessity, they are working longer and longer and they need economic opportunity,” said Roberta Gassman, deputy assistant secretary of the Employment and Training Administration at the Department of Labor. “The biggest barrier they face is the assumption that they’re not up to the job, which negatively impacts their ability to find and hold one.”
To debunk myths about older workers’ abilities, Gassman pointed to Bekker’s fellow award recipient, 101-year-old Mazerine Wingate, who for 40 years has worked at the U.S. Postal Service and previously helped build roads during the Great Depression. He spends four hours, six days a week cleaning the Lexington Park, Md., post office, where his coworkers see him as a fixture.
Sharon Kay Tennison, district communications coordinator at the Postal Service, said she sees Wingate as an inspiration. “We have more years left to work and we can do it with a positive attitude,” she says.
Gassman said there are other workers like Wingate just waiting for employers to leverage their skills. “HR managers tell us they find [older workers] hardworking and flexible,” she said. “As we look at the workforce needs in our country, we’ll need the contributions of every possible person. I ask employers to ask of the contributions of older workers.”
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