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How to plan for an older workforce

Senior citizens ages 65 and above are constituting a larger share of the workforce every year. 16.4% of all 65+ year olds are employed. The U.S. has an aging population—the U.S. Census Bureau reports that by 2050 there will be 83.7 million 65+-year-olds in America. Despite the inevitability of an aging workforce, many companies have not taken steps to transform their workplace into a space that is hospitable for the elderly, leading to conflict and productivity losses.

Why the workforce is getting older 

While demographic change and generally increased life expectancy contribute to an aging workforce, it’s crucial to understand why senior citizens are choosing to remain employed instead of retiring, and how your business can address these factors.

Americans are living longer than ever—according to the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, men that are 65 years and older today will live to an average age of 84.3 years, while women who are 65+ have an average life expectancy of 86.6 years. However, there are many more structural reasons for an aging workforce. For instance, many employees, especially public sector workers, have seen their pension plans shrink significantly, requiring them to postpone retirement. Other older people want to work in order to pay for medical bills, either for themselves or for spouses or relatives.

The workforce is not aging unilaterally. Physically demanding industries such as construction and manufacturing are not faced with an aging workforce. Older workers prefer working in administrative roles, sales, transportation, as crossing guards, and in the agricultural sector.

How can I succeed with an aging workforce?

There is the problem of ageism in the workplace—age discrimination constitutes 20% of all discrimination cases that are brought to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Older employees are reputed to be lazy, inconvenient, inefficient, and out of touch. This could not be further from the truth, and any business that circulates these myths is likely not doing the work to accommodate their older employees. In other words, their problems are self-inflicted. Older workers excel in leadership capabilities, are loyal, and are open to more flexible schedules and assignments.

Of course, it goes without saying that older employees have different work requirements than those in their twenties and thirties. Older workers need to be given the space to succeed, but how? Through their Age Smart Employer Award program, Columbia University’s Aging Center has begun to identify key factors to successfully accommodate elderly workers, including:

  1. Ongoing retraining programs that allow aging employees to take on different roles better suited for their changing physical and mental capacities.
  2. Offering benefits specifically aimed at older people, such as flexible scheduling and time off to see children and grandchildren.
  3. National and international corporations offer relocation services to warmer climates.
  4. Utilizing senior employees’ experience and networks to aid talent acquisition.

Success with older employees begins with recognizing their unique strengths—their experience, their loyalty, and their leadership skills. You should also be prepared to recognize their different needs. Aging workers won't be concerned with long-term career prospects, rather, they will seek to maximize comfort on the job, and contribute something meaningful. If your company or industry is facing an aging workforce, you will have to make changes in how to accommodate your older employees. This is no different from any other disruption such as a new competitor, a new technology, or a change in the market. Savvy managers will face this challenge head-on.

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