Whether we call it the baby boom, the Age Wave1 or the Generational Storm2, there are growing numbers of seniors at work. The trend toward earlier and earlier retirement seems to have ended, with more workers intending to stay employed, either full or part time, past traditional retirement age and well into their 60s and 70s.
As a result, the number and percentage of older workers will increase for the next 20 years. The median age of the civilian labor force is expected to rise from 35 in 1984 to 41.6 by 2014. The number of those in the workforce who are 55 and older will increase by 49 percent from 2004 to 2014. And their proportion will grow from 11.9 percent in 1994 to 21.2 percent by 2014.3
In some ways, senior workers will be our most skilled and productive employees, but in others, the most vulnerable. Employers who take steps to support the capabilities of older employees and to minimize their vulnerabilities will be rewarded by gains that include, but go well beyond, a positive impact on workplace injuries and illnesses. Returns on investments will show up as improvements in work ability, productivity, health care costs, competitiveness and sustainable business practices.
Getting Older and Working Longer
It is easy to understand why more workers are choosing to stay on the job longer. Sixty-five-year-old workers now expect to live another 20 years. For many, this is simply too long a period of reduced income and unstructured free time. Moreover, exorbitant health care costs make retirement prior to Medicare age a risky proposition. Even with Medicare, out-of-pocket costs can be extreme. In addition, private pension plans seem less secure than ever, and the age for full Social Security benefits is creeping up.
The shift from defined benefit to defined contribution plans has reduced confidence about post-retirement income. Recent changes in social security and tax laws allowing more penalty-free post-retirement income provide additional incentives to stay employed longer.
The trend should be good news. After all, consider the alternative if more boomers were to retire early. Our “pay as you go” Social Security and private pension funds were designed with two critical assumptions. The first is that the contributions of a large, young workforce would support the needs of a smaller group of older retirees. The second is that retirees would be collecting their pensions for only a few years of remaining life. In 2005, every person 65 and older was supported by the contributions of five younger ones. By 2080, there will be only 2.5 younger people for every senior. And these older people may need income for 20 or more years of life after retirement.
Along with this financing crisis is a tightening labor and skills market. The baby boom was followed by a smaller “baby bust” generation. From 2004-2014, the 55-and-older group will be growing at an annual rate of 4.1 percent while the annual growth rate of our 25-to-54-year olds will be 0.3 percent and the growth of 16-to-24-year-olds will be essentially flat. We face the possible loss of 60 percent of our skilled utility workers and 70 percent of our hospital caregivers, with inadequate numbers of young replacement workers available to fill in.
While the trend toward later retirement should be welcomed as partial relief from the financing and labor market squeezes, not all employers see it that way. Older workers, after all, are different from their younger counterparts. They consume relatively high wages and benefits. Their health care utilization for chronic disease management is high. And their reduced muscle strength, endurance, hearing, memory and reflexes might adversely affect their safety, health and performance. Fortunately, evidence shows that if employers anticipate their needs and provide a supportive working environment, the strengths and capabilities of older workers are likely to outweigh these potential problems.
Older Workers are Different – Good or Bad?
None of us escapes the physical decline of aging. We all lose muscle strength, endurance, vision and hearing. Chronic illnesses like diabetes or high blood pressure become more likely with age. Certain mental functions decline, particularly for complex problem solving and multi-tasking. You don’t have to be very old to know the frustrating inability to remember names or difficulty in keeping multiple things in your mind at once. Just try to keep up with the automated customer service line that starts telling you “Press one for technical support, two for account balance, three for …”
We might predict, and many employers believe, that these losses in physical and mental capacity make employees prone to costly error and injury as they age. However, this is not the case. Older workers have lower injury rates on the job than younger ones. Skills, experience and mature judgment have a lot to do with this, although moving into more desirable, safer jobs as workers gain seniority also may play a role. However, when older workers become injured, they lose more work time and experience higher health care costs than younger workers. Fortunately, there is much that employers can do to control these costs by creating and maintaining age friendly workplaces as described below.
Older workers typically perform their jobs well. Except for certain jobs with unusually high mental demands like air traffic controllers, job performance does not decline with age. This may be partially due to senior workers selecting into work that matches their capabilities, but it also is true that older individuals often compensate for age-related losses with relatively age-stable skills related to experience and expertise. For example, older typists often can outperform younger ones despite their reduced reaction time and tapping speed because they have learned to scan ahead to anticipate the next words to type.
Senior workers tend to be especially motivated and reliable, with low absenteeism and presenteeism. These positive attributes easily can make the expense of relatively high wages and benefits worthwhile, especially when replacement costs are considered. An AARP/Towers Perrin 2005 study concluded “At the end of the day, the cost differential for leveraging 50+ talent can be overcome by the advantages of added experience, knowledge, skills and engagement … 50+ may also contribute to higher productivity among other workers by transferring the knowledge gained over their careers and by mentoring new employees. The modest differences in annual compensation costs could easily be dwarfed by considerations such as these.” (See http://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/econ/workers_fifty_plus.pdf.)
Programs That Work
While older workers can be as safe and productive as younger ones, this will not happen automatically. Employers can ensure it through supportive programs that take advantage of the strengths and capacities of age while compensating for its vulnerabilities and limitations.
However, most American employers have not yet chosen to do this. A 1998 AARP survey of 400 employers asked about several approaches for utilizing older workers (tailored benefits, part-time arrangements, educating managers about aging and skill training). Some 55 to 68 percent of employers recognized the value of these actions, but only 18 to 44 percent actually were implementing them. A follow-up survey in 2006 concluded “most business executives are generally aware that the U.S. workforce is aging and that many firms face the risk of talent shortages and significant knowledge loss … However, few of these corporate leaders report that their own organization has taken steps to prepare for such a demographic shift …”
Companies that have taken steps have become ardent advocates. At the Vita Needle Co., a manufacturer of steel tubes and needles, the average employee age is 74. Owner Fred Harman said, “We continue to hire senior citizens because it makes good business sense. We’re not a charity. Our older workers have helped us build a strong company. It really works.”
Employers on AARP’s annual Best Employers for Workers Over 50 list are described as “Enlightened employers … making strategic business decisions in addressing the needs of an aging workforce” and experiencing “big dividends in improving productivity and moral.” (See http://www.aarp.org/research/press-center/presscurrentnews/2006_best_employers.html.)
Winning programs take a comprehensive approach. They pay attention to the physical and mental demands of jobs and they deal with a broader range of issues that might impact performance. For example, many older workers are not ready to retire but feel the need for more control over their time and schedules. This often is magnified by family and health care demands such as caring for an ailing spouse or parent. Many older workers need the challenge of new roles and responsibilities.
Scientists in Finland have determined that an individual’s work ability is the integrated product of several individual, workplace and community factors.4 These include physical workload, rest/work schedule, flexible work schedules, teamwork, age-management skills for supervisors, physical exercise, risk factor reduction and worker skill building. Attention to these factors starting while workers are young will maintain high levels of work ability as they age.
A Strategic Approach to the Aging Workforce
A successful program needs to accomplish four things. It will:
- Make sure that the physical and mental requirements of jobs match the capacities of older workers
- Address the full range of needs that older people bring to the job. This includes flexible options for making the transition to retirement and support for meeting family and community demands that might interfere with work.
- Begin to address aging when employees are young rather than waiting until later, ensuring that all workers maintain their physical and mental capacities as they age.
- Take advantage of the mix of generations, using older employees to mentor younger ones, thereby nurturing talent and transferring knowledge, skills and values.
A successful program will have four strategic dimensions:
The work environment: Injuries and poor job performance are more likely to occur when work requirements exceed individual capabilities, a mismatch potentially more frequent among older workers. Workplace ergonomics and human factors engineering can reduce exposure to hazards so young workers can reach older ages without injury and older workers can continue work without further harm.
The general methods of workplace ergonomics to reduce physical stresses on the body and to fit the workplace to the worker include substituting mechanical for manual strength, reducing highly repetitive tasks, allowing adequate recovery time, reducing stressful postures and job rotation. For example, many workers above the age of 50 begin to have problems with balance. The principles of human factors and universal design can reduce the risk of injuries from trips and falls with hand rails along travel routes, housekeeping to reduce clutter, slip-resistant floors, repair of uneven or wet floors and the use of color contrast between stairway risers and treads.
Similarly, everyone’s vision declines with age. There are practical measures to overcome problems with visual sharpness, color discrimination and depth perception: general lighting at intensities 50 percent greater than for younger workers; task lighting levels three times greater than general levels to help with fine-detailed, low-contrast objects; minimizing glare; placement of task lights to the side and in front of the worker to reduce shadows; increased contrast for stair edges and curbs; and high illuminance fluorescent fixtures to enhance color discrimination.5
While most jobs can be designed to fit most workers, it sometimes is necessary to provide alternate job assignments and retraining for workers whose physical capacities are so reduced that even modest strength or endurance is impossible and adjustments on the usual job are not feasible.
Work arrangements and work/life balance: Work schedules, supervisory relationships, decision control, communication and avenues for conflict resolution all can have an impact on the ability of employees to perform safely and productively. Factors affecting injury rates include levels of empowerment, delegation of control, labor-management relations, stress levels, grievance rates and job security.
There is a growing need for career paths, job designs, benefit and retirement options that take into account employee needs that change with age. For example, many employees are searching for alternatives to the traditional abrupt transition from full-time work to full-time retirement. The National Health and Retirement Study “has consistently shown that three out of every four older workers have said they would prefer to reduce hours gradually rather than retire abruptly” and that older adults are “increasingly interested in part-time opportunities and other activities to stay busy and productive with age.” Alternative job designs like flexible hours, job sharing, telecommuting or phased retirement may provide working environments that reduce job stress and enable safe and productive performance.
Individual attention to health promotion and disease prevention: Five chronic diseases that are more common with aging (heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive lung disease and diabetes) cause almost 70 percent of all deaths. Medical care costs are nearly two times more for employees with cancer, heart disease or diabetes than for those without disease, and these costs for 65-year-olds are four times those of 40-year-olds. Expenditures for employees at risk for these diseases – measured by blood pressure, body weight and cholesterol – averages over 50 percent more than for those at low risk. In addition, other chronic non-fatal problems of aging, such as arthritis or hearing loss, add enormous medical costs and disability.
Indirect costs – including absenteeism and low productivity, employee turnover and replacement – can be even greater than the cost of health care. A number of clinical services, particularly influenza immunization, colorectal cancer screening, mammography, cholesterol and blood pressure screening can prevent or delay disability from chronic conditions by as much as 10 years, especially when supplemented by not smoking, eating a healthy diet and moderate physical fitness .6
Social measures: Many daily living tasks become more challenging with aging and can interfere with successful job performance. For example, older workers who no longer can drive to work easily have greater needs for public transportation, car pools or telecommuting. Evolving family needs may become a significant distraction at work. For example, an employee may not be able to function adequately at work without knowing that the home health care needs of an older spouse are under control.
While some of these steps may be within the reach of individual employers (e.g. work-based car pools or elder care benefits), some must be addressed as broader social services such as improved access to health care, public transportation and laws to protect against discrimination.
While the author accepts full responsibility for the substance of this article, he would like to acknowledge that discussions and collaborative work with two groups of colleagues contributed substantially to developing the article’s themes and conclusions. The first group is the Institute of Medicine Committee on the Health and Safety Needs of Older Workers (David Wegman, Richard Burkhauser, Gary Burtless, Neil Charness, Paul Landsbergis, Charles Levenstein, Michael Marmot, Carolyn Needleman, Timothy Salthouse, Glorian Sorensen, Emily Spieler, Robert Wallace, Craig Zwerling and study director James McGee). The second group, from the University of Washington School of Public Health and the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, has been working with the author on a workshop for “Becoming an Age-Friendly Workplace” (Steve Hecker, Kate Stewart, Ken Scott, Rick Goggins, Lena Wang, Sharon Drozdowsky and Bruce Coulter).
1 Dychtwald, K. Seehttp://www.agewave.com.
2 Kotlikoff L., Burns S., 2004. The Coming Generational Storm. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
3 Toossi M. 2005, November. Labor Force Projections to 2014: Retiring Boomers. Monthly Labor Review, 25-44.
4 Ilmarinen JE. 2001. Aging Workers. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 58(8), 546-52.
5 The Lighting Research Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.http://www.lrc.rpi.edu/programs/lightHealth/AARP/index.asp
6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2003. The Power of Prevention. Reducing the Health and Economic Burden of Chronic Disease. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Michael Silverstein, M.D., MPH, is a clinical professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Washington School of Public Health. He also is the owner of French Loop Associates, a safety and health consulting firm. For 8 years prior to assuming these positions in January 2005, he was the assistant director for Industrial Safety and Health with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. His responsibilities included the state’s occupational safety and health program.