The bad labour market performance of the workforce over 50 indicates that an aged workforce is often a burden for firms. Our paper seeks to investigate whether and why this is the case by providing evidence on the relation between age, seniority and experience, on the one hand, and the main components of labour costs, namely productivity and wages, on the other, for a sample of plants in three manufacturing industries ('forest', 'industrial machinery' and 'electronics') in Finland during the IT revolution in the 1990s. In 'average' industries - those not undergoing major technological shocks - productivity and wages keep rising almost indefinitely with the accumulation of either seniority (in the forest industry) or experience (in the industry producing industrial machinery). In these industries, the skill depreciation often associated with higher seniority beyond a certain threshold does not seemingly raise labour costs. In electronics, instead, the seniority-productivity profile shows a positive relation first and then becomes negative as one looks at plants with higher average seniority. This body of evidence is consistent with the idea that fast technical change brings about accelerated skill depreciation of senior workers. We cannot rule out, however, that our correlations are also simultaneously produced by worker movements across plants. The seniority-earnings profile in electronics is instead rather similar to that observed for the other industries - a likely symptom of the prevailing Finnish wage bargaining institutions which tend to make seniority one essential element of wage determination. In the end, seniority matters for labour costs, not age as such. But only in high-tech industries, not in the economy at large. This is well tuned with previous research on gross flows of workers and jobs in the US and other OECD countries which unveiled the productivity-driving role of resource reallocation (or lack thereof) between plants. To improve the employability of the elderly at times of fast technical change, public policy should thus divert resources away from preserving existing jobs and lend more attention to the retraining of old workers to ease their reallocation away from less productive plants (or plants where they have become less productive) into new jobs.
- labor costs