A Labor Day Salute to Senior Workers
Tailoring our workplaces for these valuable employees
Gold watch time? Not just yet! More Americans than ever are staying on the job past the traditional retirement age. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that by the end of the decade, a full quarter of the workforce will be older than 55, with 10 percent of workers older than 65.
Many of these older workers stay on the job longer out of financial necessity. Retirees today are less likely to have a pension, and Social Security may not be enough for their needs. Others choose to continue in a job they love, or at least like, in order to stay socially connected and mentally agile. Recent research studies disagree about whether it's healthier to work past age 65—but whatever the studies show, it's happening!
It's good for the nation's economy when workers collect Social Security at a later age, and have more income to spend. And it's good for companies, as well. An August 2016 report from Harvard University and RAND Corporation called the retirement of the baby boomers an "economic double whammy," and noted, "An older worker's experience increases not only his own productivity but also the productivity of those who work with him."
Some older workers have experienced age discrimination at work and especially when looking for work. But signs point to an improvement of that situation. Studies say the stereotype that senior workers are less productive, less able to learn new technologies or more likely to take sick days are proving to be mere myths. Most employers report that, in fact, the increased experience, dependability and judgment of senior workers makes them more productive. And they are indispensable leaders and mentors for younger workers.
It's important to be clear that many seniors have physical and cognitive health challenges that mean continuing to work is not an option. Jobs that require hard manual labor, such as construction, factory work or fighting fires, may be too physically taxing for a senior with diminished muscle strength, vision or joint flexibility. Addressing recent calls for raising the Social Security retirement age, Cherrie Bucknor of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said, "Forcing older workers to work later into their life would pose a serious hardship for the millions of workers who work in physically demanding jobs or in difficult working conditions."
Yet retirement is less of an either-or proposition these days. Some seniors cut back on their hours, or make a little extra money at a part-time job, or launch an entirely new "encore career." Employers, too, are changing to accommodate older workers—finding in the process that the adaptations often benefit younger workers as well.
Here are some of the new trends:
A safety and ergonomic makeover for workplaces. To lower the incidence of injuries, back pain, eyestrain, hearing loss, stress-related illness, repetitive stress injuries and a host of other work-related health problems, companies can incorporate improved safety equipment, training and wellness programs that not only protect older workers, but also cut down on lost time and injuries for employees of every age.
Technology over muscle. With new technologies and robotics, many jobs today require less physical strength and more brain power. Some of these changes mean that older workers can stay on the job longer. Retraining programs keep them up to speed on evolving workplace skills.
Flexibility. To retain valuable older employees, companies should think outside the eight-to-five box by offering part-time jobs, job sharing and telecommuting. And many seniors are walking out the door after retiring from a job—only to walk back in the next day as a consultant. We might call it "retirement lite," readjusting our work-life balance to spend more time with grandchildren, or to travel, to volunteer, or follow other long-time dreams.
Policies that discourage ageism. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that the number of age discrimination charges filed is dropping. That's good news, but we have a long way to go. Research shows that ageism is pernicious for seniors and co-workers alike. Diversity training and creating an atmosphere of inclusion helps build an intergenerational team of supportive co-workers. Younger workers also should know that if they have a negative attitude about older co-workers, studies show they're less likely to be healthy in their own later years!
Caregiver accommodation and elder care benefits. A 70-year-old worker who needs time off to provide care support for his 95-year-old mom isn't rare these days! Our greater longevity means more senior employees may be caring for elderly parents. This is another area where senior workers are not alone; AARP reports that many younger workers today also are holding down a job while providing some degree of care for an ill or aging family member. AARP says companies that offer caregiver support, such as an employee assistance program, flexible work schedules and an atmosphere that is positive toward caregivers, are rewarded by more productive and loyal employees. (And legal departments, take note: University of California Hastings College of the Law experts report an increase in successful elder care discrimination cases.)
A win-win trend of note
We'd be remiss not to take special note of a growing trend as the baby boomers reach retirement age. Many older workers are switching career gears to start a new job in one of the fastest-growing business sectors: the senior care industry. Senior living communities, home care companies, memory care facilities and other organizations that provide care for elders report that older workers are patient, understanding, experienced, and often preferred by clients. And these older workers gain benefits in three priority areas of our later years: supplementing their retirement income, trying something new for an intellectual boost, and gaining the emotional benefits that come from helping others and giving back to the community.