An Employers Guide to an Aging Workforce
Traditionally, much of the banter associated with retirement has revolved around finances. The first thoughts that enter the mind of aspirant retiree involves defined contribution accounts, pensions, and investments. Shortsightedly, liquidity often takes precedence over health in spite of recent research pegging average post-retirement healthcare costs at $250,000 per couple.
The labor landscape over the past quarter century has changed drastically. Baby-boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are absconding the workforce in droves. And although the population of our country and number of inhabitants on our planet continues to swell, they aren't getting any younger.
In fact, persons over the age of 65 are projected to comprise 16% of the global population in 2050 and 20% of the US population in 2030. And in 2010, the US Census Bureau predicted that one third of the US workforce will be over the age of 50 as of 2016. Collective consternation stemming from our nation's aging population is held among economists and political pundits -- bleeding both red and blue - as it is fueling increases in health spending which are expected to grow at an average rate of 5.8% per year until 2024.
Retirement - an end goal for a majority of those occupying the workforce and aging is beginning to morph into mutual exclusivity, reverting back to the era predating Social Security as entitlement resources dry up and the grasp of reassurance conferred by pensions and subsidized defined contribution plans weaken during the economic ambivalence of present day. Workplaces and more broadly, entire industries, have technologized - creating a double edged sword of sorts which promotes productivity, but pierces the work-life balance.
The Aging Worker: Burden or Asset?
Aging is associated with a fusillade of decrements in musculoskeletal, cardiometabolic, and neurocognitive health and performance. While these decrements are heavily influenced by heredity they can be mediated by engaging in behaviors consistent with healthy lifestyle -- exercising, proper nourishing, moderating alcohol consumption, and abstaining from smoking -- physiological functional capacity (or the ability to do work) diminishes over time.
Among those working in labor intensive professions a decline in physical function and health is glaringly obvious and may pose considerable threats to occupational safety, predictably why they exit the workforce sooner than their white collar counterparts. Neurocognitive abilities such as critical thinking, episodic memory, working memory, and reaction time thusly challenging those nestled in offices during their work day.
Kampfe and colleagues (2008) reported that by virtue of their age, older employees were more likely to suffer from disabling conditions and chronic disease. Conventional wisdom would call for removing aging workers from an organization. Unfortunately, their fate may rest in the decision making prowess of an inept or inexperienced manager or human resources professional who glosses over the strengths aging workers possess.
Knowledge and experience are difficult to replace, especially when it emanates from many years within an industry's respective trenches. Those just entering the workforce can predictably outpace older and more seasoned candidates - but in most cases, textbook knowledge coupled with eagerness is an inadequate substitution for practical knowledge hailing from professional experience.
To meet the emerging needs of an aging workforce, organizations are urged to devise a multi-dimensional strategy which involves the institution of a comprehensive wellness program, implementation of a work to retirement transition plan, and retooling of post-retirement benefits in order to maintain continuity and to uphold commitment to their most valued commodity in an effort to attract and retain the most qualified and highest performing human capital.
Rappaport (2001) noted that such arrangements can provide greater perceived and actual economic security and social support.Hursh and colleagues (2006) outlined a number of suggestions to maintain productivity and enhance health among aging employees. They include:
- Individualized ergonomic analysis to reduce incidence of injuries and disability claims.
- Comprehensive job analysis that examines specific functions which result in injury.
- If applicable, augmenting work with assistive technology to increase functional capacity of workers irrespective of industries, positions, or skill. Examples would include software automation or a hydraulic lift.
- Reasonable job accommodations including modifying the worksite or work processes.
- Occupational training and continuing education via numerous mediums to keep employees engaged and abreast of industry specific trends and best practices.
- Establishing health promotion programming aimed at improving lifestyle behaviors, such as smoking cessation, exercise, and nutrition workshops in an effort to suppress healthcare utilization and attendant costs.
Ideally the latter would be baked into an all encompassing wellness program comprised of a linkage to existing programming (i.e. benefits and employee assistance), supportive physical and social environments, screening of employees and appropriate recommendations concerning prevention and treatment of disease, and lastly one that is championed by executive leadership. Pitt-Catasouphes and associates (2009) presented various forms of flexibility that could be extended to aging employees. They include:
- Work hour flexibility composed of reduced hours, job sharing, phased retirement, and part-year or seasonal agreements.
- Work schedule flexibility comprised of manipulating schedule, undulating hours based on mutual needs of employer and employee, and compressed work week (i.e. four (10) hour days versus five (8) hour days).
- Career flexibility including intermittent leaves of absence, fluctuating responsibilities, changing occupation or responsibilities.
- Physical space flexibility prominently including remote work arrangements and telecommuting.
- Employment relationship flexibility spanning deliverable based agreements, consultancy, temporary, or per-diem arrangements.
- Benefit flexibility comprised of fringe benefits such as complimentary or discounted services and products correlative with improved health and job performance.
Strumpf (2010) keenly noting the declining number of employers offering retiree coverage could implement specialized retiree health insurance programs, helping defray costs incurred by the retired employees. Giandonato and Policastro (2015) advocated the inclusion of structured, evidence-based exercise programming for aging individuals to stave off disease and delay age associated decline in physical health and cognition.
They also proposed a fitness assessment to ascertain an individual's given work capacity which could be incorporated within an occupational setting. The test, graphed below, evaluates a full scope of fitness qualities including aerobic capacity, flexibility, muscular endurance, isometric strength, reaction time, fine motor skills, balance, and coordination.
Proposed Senior Fitness Test
Test Intended Purpose
Glute Bridge Assesses lumbopelvic stability and rhythm. May be performed for time or repetitions.
Hand grip dynamometer Assesses isometric crushing grip strength.
Static Single Legged Posture Assesses balance, multiplanar lumbopelvic stability, and isometric hip flexor strength.
Unilateral Dumbbell Farmer's Walk with 4.5 kg (10 lb) Assesses ipsilateral lumbopelvic and shoulder stability, grip strength, and total body muscular endurance
dumbbell for women and 6.8 kg (15 lb) dumbbell for men.
Ruler Drop Test Assesses reaction time.
Talk Test Assesses aerobic capacity.
Coin Pick Up Assesses coordination, balance, mobility, and fine motor skills.
In the journey of life, there are only two victors: mother nature and father time. But organizations can improve the quality of life of their retiring constituencies and retirees while improving their bottom line through concerted socially responsible efforts - wins in the face of slumping economic times and widespread healthcare woes of today's world.
Giandonato, J.A. & Policastro, C.D. (2015). Senior strength: programmatic considerations for aged populations. Italian Journal of Sports Rehabilitation and Posturology, 1, 60-74.
Hursh, N., Lui, J., & Pransky, G. (2006). Maintaining and enhancing older worker productivity. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 25, 45-55.
Kampfe, C.M, Wadsworth, J.S, Mamboleo, G., & Schonbrun, S. (2008). Aging, disability, and employment. Work, 31, 337-344.
Pitt-Catsouphes, M., Matz-Kosta, C., & Besen, E. (2009). Workplace exibility: Findings from the Age and Generations Study. Boston: Sloan Center on Aging and Work, Boston College.
Rappaport, A.M. (2001). Employer strategies for a changing workforce: phased retirement and other options. Benefits Quarterly, 17, 58-64.
Strumpf, E. (2010). Employer-sponsored health insurance for early retirees: impacts on retirement, health, and health care. International Journal of Health Care Finance and Economics, 10, 105-147.