Creating age-friendly workplaces to retain later-life workers

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

Many of our stories focus on later-life Annapolitans who are continuing work into their bonus years – whether it’s paid, volunteer, Samaritan or enrichment kinds of work.  We do this for two reasons.  First, research shows that continued social engagement is the most important predictor of successful aging, and work is sure-fire channel for social engagement.

Second, there is a spiritual aspect:  There is work to do, and using our time, talent and treasure as paid workers or volunteers to help others and to repair the world is a productive and satisfying way to use our gifts – at least until we are sidelined by frailty or disease.

But today, there is an additional reason to work into the bonus years:  Gray-haired workers are needed by US economy – by the firms that create the wealth and provide the goods and services that make our economy hum.

Workers in later-life are needed because the growth of the US workforce is slowing.  Workforce growth rates of 30 percent in the 1970s that slowed to 12 percent in the 1990s have leveled off to about three percent.

The issues are even more dramatic when viewed in terms of age groups.  Example: During this decade, the number of workers aged 35-44 will decline by 19 percent.  That’s a problem because this cohort of highly-skilled and experienced workers represents the next generation of business leadership at every level – and this promotion-ready talent pool is shrinking.

However, at the other end of the talent pipeline, the number of workers 45 and older is growing by leaps and bounds.  During this decade, the number aged 45-54 will increase 21 percent, and those aged 55-64 will increase 52 percent!

Or look at labor force participation rates:

  • For those 55 and older the rate has increased from 29 percent in 1950 to 37 percent in 2005 to more than 40 percent today.
  • For those 65 and older, the number has increased from 11 percent in 1985 to nearly 20 percent today.
  • In the age group 75 and older, the percentage has nearly doubled since the mid-1980s – from four percent to nearly 8.0 percent today.

This huge increase in those working past age 65 is the product of five forces: (1) labor shortages and talent deficits as the baby boom bulge moves through the demographic snake. Indeed, boomers are turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day for the next 18 years; (2) labor force growth rates are shrinking – from 30 percent in the 1970s to three percent today; (3) improved later-life health which permits working longer; (4) financial stresses, which require many later-life Americans to work longer; and (5) changing attitudes about work which include a greater desire among many to work in their bonus years.

As a result, most business, government and non-profit enterprises are doing everything they can to retain the skills, knowledge and experience of employees in their bonus years.

Example: The Conference Board, a respected business research group, is encouraging businesses to radically rethink the way they go about the recruitment, retention and management of later-life workers.  A recent report said, “If properly engaged, mature workers will provide significant solutions and cost savings at a time [of increasing global competition]…Failure to investigate or recognize the issues surrounding the maturing workforce will pose a threat to future growth and productivity.”

Example: The AARP’s Best Employers for Workers Over 50 has recognized more than 130 cutting-edge companies “whose best practices and policies for addressing the issues of an aging workforce are roadmaps for the workplaces of tomorrow.”

Innovations to create an age-friendly workplace are many and are surfacing in nearly every sector.

One path to an age-friendly work environment is a corporate culture with flexible working conditions, opportunities for personal growth and the chance to give something back.  Examples: flexible scheduling, telecommuting, job-sharing, and phased-in retirement; and workplace design such as ergonomic work stations and facilities that take into account the mobility constraints of later-life individuals.

Another path: Alternative compensation options such as employee benefits that support the health and financial security of employees; caregiver support programs for “sandwich generation” workers; and financial planning services, pre-retirement preparation seminars and workshops.

Still another: Lifelong learning opportunities, such as job training opportunities (e.g., to learn computer or social media skills) and refresher courses for people who have been out of the workforce for a time – or opportunities to give back by assigning older workers as in-house advisors, experts and mentors for younger workers – a practice pioneered by McDonalds.

Finally, increasing numbers of companies are giving more attention to retiree relations, such as continued access to company stores and fitness centers, maintaining a data base of post-career employees who might be interested in returning to work in some capacity, volunteer-based company museums and oral history projects.

In the end, all paths lead to a longer working life by most later-life Americans.  It is not just the need for the skills, knowledge and experience of those in their bonus years that is attractive to a business or non-profit enterprise; it is also the reliability, adaptability, flexibility and availability of later-life workers that are appealing.  That’s why, going forward, the demand for Americans in their bonus years to remain in the workplace will continue – and many are likely to respond.

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