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AIHce 2010: The Future of Work and the Aging Work Force

In the May 24 Jeffrey S. Lee Lecture at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo (AIHce) in Denver, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Director John Howard addressed the changing patterns in employment brought on by an aging work force and how those changes might challenge occupational health and safety.

“We are all aware of the issues we have in [workplace] hazards,” Howard said. “But there are other issues in patterns of employment that are changing that can have an influence on the health and safety of workers.”

Howard outlined 11 challenges and issues that will impact the future of the U.S. work force:

1. Limited availability of workers of the future – Fewer young workers are entering the work force, a trend that will continue in the coming years. This can be attributed to longer life expectancies, which increased dramatically over the course of the 20th century; and lower fertility rates in the United States and worldwide. As a result, the work force will see fewer young workers entering the ranks.

2. More older workers – Howard, who called older workers “chronologically gifted,” said this group will grow substantially in the work force. “And it’s part of a worldwide phenomenon … This is the graying of the world as opposed to just the United States,” he said.

3. Health-challenged young workers – Employers might assume younger workers are in great shape, Howard said, but that’s not necessarily true. Obesity alone threatens large numbers of children and young adults in the United States. Weight problems can lead to high blood pressure, Type II diabetes, sleep apnea, musculoskeletal disorders and much more.

4. Key skills deficit in young workers – Howard explained that over the next decade, nearly 30 percent of American 20-year-olds will obtain a college degree, but 60 percent of new jobs will require a degree. With growing numbers of high school dropouts and school districts fighting to improve their graduation rates, Howard said, this is clearly going to add to the global labor crunch.

5. Generational attitudes – For the first time, four generations are working side by side in the workplace. And their attitudes might be very different. Younger workers are exhibiting a decreasing desire for jobs with greater responsibility and are less likely to align their values with the organization’s values. While traditionalists might care about the fate of the organization, Millennials, or Generation Y employees, are less likely to share this concern.

6. Global competition work force – The migration of talent now plays a much bigger role in shaping the skilled work force. Previously, the United States benefited from skilled workers arriving to work (and thus creating “brain drain” for other countries). Now, however, workers don’t necessarily have to come to the United States to reap the benefits of their skills.

“This mobility issue now is creating internationalization of the labor market, and the U.S. might not be in the favorable position it once was,” Howard said.

7. Innovative employment arrangements – There also has been an increase in contingent workers, who work without the promise of longevity. According to Howard, there is evidence to support the fact that contingent workers are at a higher risk for work-related injury, illness or death. Contingent workers also maybe lack experience or familiarity within their jobs because they go from job to job, employer to employer.

“Clearly, contingent workers are not covered by workers’ comp insurance,” Howard said. “This is a serious issue.”

8. Encore careers vs. retirement – “Retirement is totally 20th century thinking,” Howard said. In 1900, the average length of retirement was 1.2 years. In 1980, it was 13.6 years. In 2010, it is 30+ years.

What are retirees doing with that time? While 12 percent say they’d like to continue working full time, 39 percent want to work part time and 49 percent would like to switch between leisure time and working a little. More and more older workers are retiring but them embarking on “encore” careers and thus remaining in the work force.

9. Blended lifestyles – Howard explained that increasingly, workers – particularly younger workers, such as Millennials – are attracted to cycling through work and leisure time. They may work for a few months, then leave that job and travel or take time off, then return to a different job for a while. The work force of the future may therefore see people entering and leaving at multiple times. The current work force systems are based on what Howard now calls “fiction” – that an employee goes to work for one company, stays there for 30-40 years and then retires.

10. Age-related challenges for occupational safety and health – Possible limitations that come with age include mental capacity and cognitive limitations; chronic health conditions; and the fact that employees are more likely to work to their physical capacity. Arthritis is the No. 1 chronic condition affecting workers over 55, followed by hypertension. “If you take no more message home, that’s the thing you need to pay attention to: the musculoskeletal system in workers and how to protect it,” Howard stressed.

Compensating factors for these age-related limitations, however, include older workers’ better attitudes, judgment, work flexibility and an interest in learning new things. And while older workers may have some limitations and medical costs, younger workers have their own, as well. Non-age-related factors, such as smoking, pregnancy, lack of exercise and obesity also are costly. “I dare you to find younger workers that aren’t costing you money,” Howard said.

11. Changes in social benefits and discrimination – The Social Security system will be another ongoing issue for the aging work force in the coming years. Howard added that discrimination against older workers is “an active area now on the social scene” as courts try to determine how to address this sensitive issue, especially when it can be difficult to prove that an employee was fired for age-related reasons.

“Do aging workers need special accommodations?” Howard asked. “Well, I think we need to accommodate everyone. Clearly, there shouldn’t be any conflict between ergonomic principles vs. reasonable accommodations.”

These shifts in work force demographics, attitudes and more call for employers and EHS professionals to institute policies to ensure the workers of tomorrow are protected.

“I would suggest [employers] have a vigorous return-to-work policy and practice,” Howard said.

TAGS: Archive Safety
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