A Brighter Future for a Graying Workforce
Perceptions of older workers haven’t caught up with the reality of their increasingly prominent role in the labor force.
The federal Administration for Community Living reports that the U.S. population over age 60 has surged nearly 40 percent in just the past decade. By 2030, retirees will outnumber children for the first time in history, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts. The world population is on a similar path.
But in the face of this significant demographic shift, discriminatory views of older people persist in obvious and subtle ways. This discrimination colors coworkers’ beliefs about, among other things, older workers’ mental ability, efficiency, and competence on the job, according to one international review of studies on aging.
When people think about the future, “they fail to appreciate the potential that older workers present as workers and consumers,” Paul Irving, an expert on aging, writes in a special November edition of the Harvard Business Review exploring issues relevant to our aging workforce.
Research backs him up. Older people are living longer than past generations, which gives them more capacity to extend their work lives. They’re also generally healthier and enjoy more disability-free years, thanks to innovations like cataract surgery to restore their vision.
But ageism’s consequences are still apparent in the workplace. An Urban Institute report said that older workers, for a variety of reasons, are frequently pushed or nudged out of a long-term job at some point late in their careers. Some are forced into early retirement. And for those who do find another job, the new opportunities, while less stressful, are often a step down in terms of prestige and pay.
Irving, who is chairman of the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging, wants to chart a more hopeful path for our graying U.S. workforce, one that views it as an opportunity – rather than a looming crisis.
Governments and companies have a variety of options for accommodating older workers or for making them – and younger adults – more comfortable about the concept of working at older ages.
One new report proposed changing our expectations of what the nation’s retirement age should be to 70 as a way to improve older workers’ finances once they do decide to retire. Not every older worker would make it to 70, but this higher benchmark would have the added advantage of giving them something new to aspire to and could help change the public’s perception of an acceptable age to keep working.
One of Irving’s proposals is to make the physical workplace more comfortable. Xerox is doing this with ergonomic training to ease its aging employees’ skeletal aches and pains.
He also argues that employers could adopt a new management style: they should view employees of all ages as the ideal, because young and old offer something completely different to their employers.
A wide age range, he said, mixes “the energy and speed of youth with the wisdom and experience of age.”
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