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Experts: Prepare Now for Aging Workforce
 

By April W. Klimley  9/13/2011
 

The workforce is aging around the world. Estimates indicate that by 2050, the number of people over the age of 60 will exceed the number of those in younger generations. Experts say companies should prepare now for this global shift.

Yet what most U.S. companies don’t realize, experts say, is that they need to reduce the chance of financial and legal problems arising with these employees—a group more subject to disabilities than younger workers.

“Workplaces must be ready to accommodate these employees, or there will be more disability claims,” warned Susanne M. Bruyere, director of the Employment and Disability Institute, Industrial and Labor Relations School, Cornell University, during a webinar Aug. 30, 2011.

The webinar was sponsored by EARN (the Employer Assistance and Resource Network), a part of the National Employer Technical Assistance, Policy and Research Center at Cornell, and was funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

Jill Houghton, acting executive director of the U.S. Business Leadership Network, an organization that connects business leaders interested in people with disabilities, moderated the event.

But is aging a disability? That prospect was news to a large portion of listeners of the webinar.

Bruyere pointed out that no one should make assumptions about the health, well-being and productivity of older workers. But she said employers should prepare to provide accommodations that will meet the needs of mature workers in order to retain them, because statistically the incidence of disability increases with age.

Bruyere began her presentation by providing data showing how older workers are becoming a larger portion of the workforce. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data reveals that employment of workers age 65 and older doubled from 1977 to 2007. By 2030, the BLS predicts, the percentage of workers ages 55 to 64 will increase by 36.5 percent, while those age 65 and older are expected to increase by 80 percent. This means that in 2030, one in four U.S. workers will be 55 or older—compared with one in six in 1950.

Bruyere provided multiple reasons for this trend. People are living longer and enjoying more-active lives. They enjoy working and being productive. They might delay retirement because of insufficient retirement savings or high health care costs. And employers facing a declining pool of young workers are in some cases asking older workers to stay on the job.

Big Replacement Cost

Older workers are willing to remain in the workforce to fill an employment and knowledge gap, which is a welcome development because the cost of replacing experienced workers can be significant.

But these advantages come with challenges; disability has been shown to increase with age. And employers ill-prepared to accommodate disabilities are more likely than others to run afoul of the law.

Bruyere provided data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on disability-related charges from 1993 to 2007. In one chart, the data was analyzed by age group. It showed that disability-related charges from the youngest group (those ages 16 to 39) have been declining and that the number has held steady for those ages 40 to 54. Yet for those in the 55 and older group, charges increased from about 12 percent in 1993 to approximately 24 percent in 2007.

Thus, employers should create proactive strategies to boost productivity, improve job satisfaction and increase long-term retention rates for older workers—and guard against disability-related charges. However, the speakers noted that employers have been slow to take action and provide certain types of critical training for older workers.

Bruyere called for greater attention to public policy and proactive education of employers about the benefits of workplace accommodation for those with disabilities and for the aging workforce. And she suggested that companies review their HR policies and procedures to see if updates are needed to accommodate older workers.

Workplace and career flexibility is a critical component of recruiting and retaining older workers, she remarked. They welcome flexible schedules such as compressed workweeks as well as the opportunity to telecommute, work from multiple locations and “snowbird” (work from a southern location in the winter and a northern location in the summer).

Other programs workers close to retirement age appreciate include flexible employment relationships, such as deferred retirement plans and retiree independent contractor roles, and flexible benefits, such as phased retirement and cafeteria plans.

Ergonomic workstations can be used to reduce injury and the impact of disability or to accommodate loss of visual acuity or balance, as can assistive technology devices. Training initiatives can help maintain and upgrade skills.

Bruyere recommended having an at-work retiree network and using senior staff to mentor new workers. Other options include casual/part-time worker programs, health screenings, and retirement policies that offer incentives to older employees such as phased retirement and temporary consulting assignments.

Expectations of Workers

John Wagner, director, product solution management, at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, who co-presented the webinar, focused on the preferences of Baby Boomers—those whom he believes should be called “Zoomers” because their expectations are so different from those of the previous generation.

For example, he said that a survey of Baby Boomers published by Del Webb, a builder of active adult communities, found that half expected to work at least part time once they retire.

Moreover, this population continues to adapt to technology as it changes. Seniors increasingly are using social networking tools, Wagner said, noting that a Pew study found that from 2008 to 2009, those in the Baby Boomer and mature generations had the largest percentage gains among U.S.-based Internet users in the maintenance of a social networking site profile.

April W. Klimley is a freelance journalist based in New Jersey.

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