Aging Workforce Means Rethinking Benefit Strategies

Accommodations allow older employees to stay on the job or phase into retirement

By Joanne Sammer October 8, 2015

If you notice more gray hair in the workforce, it isn’t your imagination. Despite an ongoing recovery in the economy and stronger financial markets, more older workers are postponing retirement. And that has implications on employee benefits, career-advancement opportunities and overall workplace morale.

The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College expects the average retirement age to increase by a full year—from the current age of 61.8 to 62.8—over the next three decades. Workers are delaying retirement because of a lack of traditional defined benefit pension benefits, a later Social Security retirement age for full benefits and the declining number of employer-provided retiree health benefit programs, the Boston College researchers found.

Of course, while many older employees keep working for financial reasons, others stay on the job because they like it and because it keeps them busy and sharp. This makes sense given the gains in longevity that could yield 20 or 30 years of retirement for many Americans. A study of 4,500 workers conducted by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, a nonprofit foundation funded by Transamerica Life Insurance Co., found that 82 percent of employees currently in their 60s plan on working past age 65. In addition, 37 percent of all surveyed employees include “working” as a source of retirement income and 13 percent expect working to be their primary source of income in their later years.

Workplace Implications

An older workforce has significant implications for employers and the organizational culture. There are plenty of positive aspects of having more older workers in an organization. For one thing, many older workers are talented, well-trained, and have deep life and workplace experience that can be invaluable to any organization. But the value that comes from having older workers does not necessarily accrue automatically. Companies can cultivate this value by:

Fostering generational ties. “Employers should develop strategies for capitalizing on the positive opportunities that multigenerational workforces can create, such as mentoring, knowledge transfer, diversity of perspectives, and cross-training on technology and other skills,” said Debra Friedman, member of law firm Cozen O’Connor in Philadelphia.

At the same time, employers will need to manage some of the challenges associated with older workers. “When employees stay in the organization longer, the balance of generations and the gaps between them become greater,” said Chris Cordery, senior vice president of sales at RealMatch, a recruitment technology firm in New York

Cordery suggested that employers pay close attention to how various generations interact and work together. Designing events and activities that allow employees from multiple generations to get to know each other and socialize a bit can also help prevent or ease any tensions in the workplace, he said.

Offering accommodations. There are legal issues to consider as well. For example, “employers may experience a higher volume of Family and Medical Leave Act leave requests from its aging workforce, as older employees may have more serious health conditions and/or need to care for aging parents and spouses,” said Friedman.

Older workers may also require more accommodations in their work environment. In these cases, employers need to be vigilant in making sure the organization and individual managers and supervisors are well-versed on various legal requirements for making such accommodations, including the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and relevant state and local laws.

“Employers also should be proactive in training their workforces to prevent age bias in recruiting, hiring, performance management, retention and workforce reorganizations,” said Friedman.

Phasing retirement. Just because employees are staying in the workforce longer does not mean that they want to keep working forever. Employers can offer flexible work arrangements, such as flexible hours and scheduling, and telecommuting opportunities. These efforts can include a formal phased retirement program that allows employees to keep working while reducing their hours, and potentially their responsibilities, over time.

“An employee who is aging may still want to play a vital role in the organization, but may not be able to contribute in the same way and at the same speed,” said Beth Zoller, legal editor for XpertHR USA, a provider of HR information resources. “If a worker is no longer able to perform a specific job, the employer should evaluate whether an employee’s skills and talents may be used elsewhere in the company.”

The Benefits Question

Benefits and compensation can also reveal the differences between older and younger workers. “Employees later in their careers may be more motivated by a 401(k) match, while employees earlier in their careers may be more excited about educational reimbursement,” said Jackie Breslin, director of human capital services at HR services provider TriNet in San Leandro, Calif.

Because older individuals tend to have higher health care expenses, employers with a large number of older workers could see higher health benefit costs. Friedman urged employers to implement wellness programs that can help the entire workforce to identify and manage any chronic health conditions.

Zoller suggested employers increase their workplace safety efforts to help older workers. For example, employers could install guardrails, better lighting and other improvements to help ease the strain on older workers.

Growing Awareness

Employers are recognizing the trend toward longer work lives and the implications for the workplace. A 2014 survey of nearly 2,000 HR professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 36 percent were aware of the aging workforce trend and were examining their internal policies and management practices to address the change, while 20 percent had already done so and determined no changes were necessary. Another 19 percent were just becoming aware of these issues.

This awareness is critical. The changes and accommodations necessary for older workers are not extensive. They simply require employers to have open eyes, ears and minds in order to see potential challenges and pressure points for older workers and take steps to alleviate them.

Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.​

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