Issues With an Aging Workforce
Lisa Harris, Communications Coordinator and Editor, Kansas University Transportation Center
How to create an older-worker-friendly environment
Baby boomers are at, or getting near, retirement age, but many are not retiring. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts that, by 2014, the number of workers over 55 will grow to 20 percent of the labor force, up from the 15 percent it is today. Many baby boomers haven’t saved enough to kick back full time in retirement and will continue to work to meet basic expenses. But others say they plan to continue working—even if it means cutting back on the hours—because they want to be engaged in their fields.
The BLS reported that, rather than retiring outright, over 50 percent of older workers are in transitional or “bridge” jobs. The BLS predicts that, as this trend continues, traditional retirements will be the exception rather than the rule.
In a research study conducted by the New-York based Conference Board in 2005, researchers found that most employers say they hire for ability and willingness to work, and consider their older workers reliable, settled, compassionate and honest. Some say they’re “hiring wisdom” when hiring older workers. However, some job skills are not as easily performed due to physical changes that accompany aging. This article will describe some aspects of aging that can affect job performance, and how to work around those realities to retain or hire good employees who would like to work beyond the traditional retirement age.
Physical effects of aging
Here are some aspects of aging that may affect public works employees. Please note that these are generalizations based on research, and not all of these will apply to a particular employee. Each individual ages differently. But this list gives you things to consider:
- Loss of strength. On average, a person’s physical strength decreases about 25 percent by age 65.
- Decrease in aerobic capacity. At age 60 an individual will have only 60-70 percent of maximum aerobic power as a 20 year old. This means an older person will get winded more easily under exertion.
- Decreased ability to handle shift work. Resistance to the special stresses of night work declines with age. Under such conditions older persons may be less adaptable and more easily tired.
- Decreased ability to regulate body heat through sweat and water retention. This may make older workers more susceptible to heat stroke.
Decreased reaction time. It may take a little longer for an older worker to remember things or learn things.
- Chronic health conditions. With advancing age comes an increase in chronic health conditions that could affect an employee’s ability to do certain jobs. These include arthritis, high blood pressure, and obesity. Nationally, obesity has been increasing, especially among older men, according to the AARP.
- Over one-fifth of people between the ages of 55 and 64 report some limitation in activity due to chronic conditions, a figure that rises to nearly one-third for people ages 65 to 74.
- Vision impairments. Eyes are complex structures, and several kinds of changes affect vision over time. The eye’s lens thickens over time and muscles controlling the size of the pupil are not as responsive. These changes can cause decreased ability to focus, see in conditions of low visibility, adjust to changes in light conditions, and distinguish colors in the blue-green and red regions.
- Hearing impairments. Hearing loss with age is well known. With the frequency of 3000 Hz as a standard, loss of hearing averages 10 decibels at age 50 and increases to 35 decibels at age 70.
Ways to include older workers in your work setting
Some of the above age-related aspects can be mitigated by the employee with diet and exercise, certain medications, and assistive devices such as hearing aids. But for some people, limitations will remain. As the AARP points out: The fact that people report less than excellent health or some limitation in activity does not mean they are incapable of doing any work. How do employers take advantage of the wisdom, experience and work ethic of older workers and create a work environment that gets the most out of these employees and encourages them to stay? Answer: By being more flexible.
Create different work schedules
In an article in the Des Moines Register, Richard Doak suggested creating more jobs that offer part-time, flex hours and seasonal employment, so seniors can work “but still take in their grandkids’ Little League games or make a snowbird trip south.”
You can reduce risk of injury to an older worker by modifying their responsibilities to account for the job performance issues outlined above. Each individual is different. Get to know what aging-related conditions your employee may be experiencing, and adjust his or her duties accordingly. For example, you might keep an employee who needs more visual contrast away from work situations where visibility is poor, such as plowing in blizzard conditions or working outside at night.
Pair younger employees with older employees
Many employers seek to develop ways for older workers to pass their knowledge and skills on to younger workers. Some pair older and younger workers. Older workers benefit by getting a helping hand for more strenuous work tasks.
The aging workforce is not just an issue in the United States. The European Union (EU), in its annual Labor Progress Report for 2006, listed the creation of employment policies to get people into work as one of four high priorities. The EU proposed that, to help increase employment rates and to finance pensions and health care for an aging population, EU member-states should adopt a life-cycle approach to employment, with people of all ages offered the support they need. It promotes “active aging,” with more training for those over 45, along with financial incentives for prolonging working lives and use of part-time work.
When your older workers need to transition to different kinds of job responsibilities in your agency, provide training so that they may do so. And give them a little extra time for the training, if they need it.
Modify the work environment
Some suggestions: Set your computer programs to default to a larger font, if needed. Increase illumination in work areas—up to twice as high for workers over 50. Some private companies have set up a Casual Worker Program that allows them to hire or reemploy workers who would receive limited benefits.
Many valuable employees will want to work past their retirement years. Make that work for you! By being flexible in how you approach work schedules and work responsibilities, within reason of course, you can have the benefits of the expertise and work ethic of older workers and provide them with the extra income or opportunities to contribute that they are seeking.
Richard Doak. Make Iowa the Place to be For Older Workers. Des Moines Register. January 16, 2006.
Sara Rix. AARP Public Policy Institute. Health and Safety Issues in an Aging Workforce. IB Number 49. May 2001.
W. Tim McGlothlin. Ergonomics Center of North Carolina. Ergonomics and the Aging Workforce. 2007. Presentation.
Lynne Morton, Lorrie Foster and Jeri Sedlar. Managing the Mature Workforce. The Conference Board 2005. www.conference-board.org.