Europe’s lesson for America on the talent gap: Hire older workers

Europe, which faces an even more serious workforce shortfall than the U.S. does, is discovering a new source of talent: workers over age 55. A recent Wall Street Journal article profiled Spanish entrepreneur Kim Diaz, who decided to hire only workers aged 50 and above when he opened a restaurant in Barcelona four years ago.

The Journal reports that his bet paid off:

Older staff are punctual, polite and hardworking, [Diaz] said, and their professionalism has proven a hit with younger customers.

“We’re talking about waiters who enjoy their jobs, remember exactly how you take your coffee in the morning, how you want your beer without a head and your Coke with just one ice cube. These are values that we’ve been losing in hospitality recently,” Mr. Diaz said. His average employee is 54.

The trend toward hiring older workers is gaining momentum throughout Europe:

Across a rapidly aging Europe, employers are finding ways to keep older staff on the job for longer, or adding new ones.  Workers aged 55-74 accounted for 85% of employment growth in the eurozone between 2012 and 2018, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development….

A major incentive driving this trend is Europe’s coming “demographic cliff.” The region’s currency union will lose 16 percent of its working-age population (ages 15-64) by 2050 relative to its total population, according to the European Central Bank. That is double the proportion of the U.S. working-age population that will be lost over the period.

In response, European businesses and governments are working to increase employment and productivity among older workers. For example,

Executives at German auto maker BMW AG tried an experiment at a factory in Bavaria a few years ago. They staffed an assembly line exclusively with older workers, with the average age approaching 50.

By making small tweaks—ergonomic chairs, less-rigid wooden floors, lenses to magnify smaller parts—BMW transformed the line into one of the factory’s most efficient. The total outlay: around 40,000 euros ($45,000).

“We found that older workers had the same productivity as younger ones, and in terms of quality they were even better,” said Jochen Frey, human resources spokesman for BMW. The line’s design has since been replicated in BMW factories across Germany and beyond.

Employers elsewhere are finding that previous assumptions about older workers’ productivity are wrong, the Journal reports:

Economists had until recently assumed that workers’ productivity peaked somewhere between the ages of 30 and 45, before declining rapidly after about 60. But some recent research challenges that assumption: Examining large data sets, economists led by Axel Borsch-Supan at Munich’s Technical University found that the productivity of manufacturing and service-sector workers doesn’t change much through age 65.

As a result of the increase in older workers, the eurozone’s labor force is now 2 percent larger than before the financial crisis in 2008, “defying predictions that it would shrink,” according to the Journal.

That has helped lift the region’s recovery from a deep financial crisis, making it easier for firms to fill vacancies and for governments to plug holes in public coffers.

To capitalize on this trend, Caroline Young founded a recruitment agency in Paris in 2005 that places retired workers with industrial companies in France, Germany and Belgium.

“Employers have realized you’re not that old at retirement,” said Ms. Young, who says she has more than 1,000 retirees working every year. Her oldest placement was 80 years old.