In Praise of Erda's Susan Nordman

One of the most emailed stories in the New York Times last week was a brutal expose on the seemingly ruthless working conditions at Amazon. While it's fairly certain that Amazon won't win a spot on Fortune's "Best Places To Work" rankings anytime soon, the otherwise impressive story failed to mention that a self-imposed "pedal to the metal" working mindset is pervasive among technology workers throughout Silicon Valley, as the New York Times itself reported in May. And it's not just technology companies: American businesses increasingly favor youthful employees who will toil long hours with nary a complaint or outside interest to distract them.

Against the backdrop of its Amazon story, the Times last week also ran a story about companies relaxing their work rules to accommodate the needs of their older workers. Susan Nordman, co-owner of Erda, a small handbag company in Dexter, Maine, was featured. With the majority of Erda employees over 55, Ms. Nordman can appreciate that there's no substitute for experience.

"Preserving critical knowledge is vital to the longevity of any business," she said. "The skills that my employees possess require hands-on learning. With time and training, new workers can learn these skills, but only if someone is there to teach them.

"Yes, you have to accommodate older workers' needs," Ms. Nordman added, "but they're an asset, and you have to take care of an asset."

With people remaining healthy and vibrant well into their 60s, the once-mandatory retirement age of 65 no longer makes sense. Those able to continue working benefit greatly from the positive health improvements that comes with keeping their minds engaged. As Gary J. Kennedy, M.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral science in the division of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, once explained to AARP, "You can improve your brain health by getting regular mental stimulation, social interaction and physical activity." Holding a steady job certainly fits that bill.

The financial upside of working is clearly beneficial as well, particularly when the "cost" of retirement keeps going up. As Senator Susan Collins, the Republican Senator from Maine and chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Aging has noted, "we're facing a tsunami of retirees who find that they are going to outlive their savings, that they are not prepared for their retirement."

There are some signs of progress. As the Times notes, more and more older people are remaining in the workforce. "From 1985 to 2014, the rate of participation in the labor force for people 65 to 69 increased to almost 32 percent from about 18 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics."

In Ms. Nordman's case, respect for experience makes good business sense. Erda, now turning a profit, expects to produce nearly 16,000 bags this year, which is a 77 percent increase over the number produced in 2013.

It's heartening to note that the value of experience is not lost on some millennials. Gus Wenner, the 25-year-old son of Rolling Stone publisher and founder Jann Wenner who is charged with revitalizing the magazine's digital offerings, confided to the New York Times that "given my youth or inexperience, (hiring great people) is probably more important than it would be otherwise."

Among the younger Mr. Wenner's advisors: Tom Freston, the former chief executive of Viacom. Mr. Freston is 69 years old.

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