What is to come of cobblers, milliners and tailors? Are these venerated artisans and, more alarmingly, older workers in general, turning into novelty acts from a bygone era?
Not yet. According to at least one prominent clothing manufacturer, whose example of age diversity may provide a glimpse into the future of an ageless U.S. workforce. “Brooks Brothers is ahead of the curve and a model for other companies,” explained Ruth Finkelstein with the Columbia Aging Center in a recent Bloomberg Business Week article (3-9-16). She applauds Brooks Brothers, the nation’s oldest men’s clothier, “for tackling the challenges and opportunities of managing multigenerational employees.”
The company might be called a progressive traditionalist. As the Bloomberg profile notes, “Brooks Brothers considers the veterans a worthwhile investment, because they excel at speed and precision and make few mistakes. The operation is largely automated, but some work is still done by hand, and older, more experienced tailors are more skilled. They can make sample neckties in only 30 minutes – a task a newbie can’t handle.”
The New York factory’s youngish director of operations, Luis Nava, 37, relies on guidance and advice from older workers with reimagining operations. “They have a tremendous amount of experience, he says, “So to be effective, you have to lead with humility.”
The Bloomberg article noted, too, that to make everyday work-life easier for older workers – more than half of the 222 employees are 55 or older — Brooks Brothers changed some rules related to flexible time, vacation, caring for ailing relatives, and time-off for doctor’s appointments and to attend special events – for children and grandchildren.
Renowned longevity advocate, the late Robert N. Butler, M.D., anticipated such progress in the workplace. “Is it reasonable for people to spend a quarter of their adult life in retirement?” posed the Pulitzer winning author in his seminal book The Longevity Revolution: The Benefits and Challenges of Living a Long Life (2008, Public Affairs).
“In the United States in 1990 a man spent about 3 percent of his life in retirement,” Dr. Butler noted. Around that time, fully 75 percent of men over 65 were in the labor force, compared to about 20 percent now. “
“Early retirement becomes wasted productive capacity,” Dr. Butler forewarned. “Productive aging and engagement will help quell the three great fears of longevity – that there will be an unprecedented number of economically dependent older persons, that old people will drag down economic productivity, and that there will be intergenerational conflict.”
Fortunately, “U.S. companies increasingly are heading in the same direction as those in aging countries like Japan and Germany with shortages of skilled workers,” Columbia’s Finkelstein noted.
Perhaps the only thing that might sidetrack the venerable Brooks Brothers, which has outfitted 39 U.S. presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, would be a female president in 2017.