Aging in the Workplace

46By Alice Waagen, PhD
President, Workforce Learning
Photo of MerceRodoreda by art_es_anna,

Perhaps the most glaring result of the economic downturn that began in 2008 is that predictions about looming labor shortages may not come to fruition. Why? Boomers who once planned to retire in their early 60s are changing their plans because their invested savings have lost up to 30% of their value in the stockmarket. Consequently, I believe we will need to extend the upper range of the age of the workforce by about a decade.

To prepare for this age-diverse workforce, we will need to broaden our definition of “diversity” beyond the traditional categories of age, race, and religion — and add diversity of values and beliefs.

Most of the current literature about generational differences prescribes a homogenous set of values and beliefs to each of the generations currently in the workforce. (For example: “All boomers are technologically challenged.”)

Smart business leaders realize that human beings rarely fit neatly into such tidy bundles. Successful organizations will create cultures that treat everyone as individuals and create a workplace that is flexible and adaptive to a wide range of work and lifestyle needs.

As a result, one-size-fits-all policies for dress, work hours and health benefits need to be replaced with menus of choices — on how to incorporate life with work, for instance.

*HOW TO STAY AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Ideas for staying flexible and adaptive

Prepare for potential physical limitations of aging workers. Employers will need to be proactive about implementing healthy workplace programs that allow younger workers to age without injury.

Stave off the rising cost of health insurance. One concern about an aging workforce is that their aging may increase health coverage costs. Proactive changes to make workstations more ergonomically sensitive to stiffening joints or poorer eyesight will allow workers to be healthier and more productive longer.

Create flexible employment opportunities. Some people are motivated by challenging work and less interested in climbing the corporate ladder. Project work lends itself nicely to contractor status, freeing senior workers to take periodic time off between projects. Full-time status, with its required workweek of 40-plus hours and fixed vacation time, does not always fit the values or lifestyles of late-career workers — or of some younger Generation Y employees.

Bridge the age-values gap. Age-based mentoring programs are a great way to get older and younger workers to share ideas. Some organizations call it “reverse mentoring,” and it works by having younger workers mentor older staff on what makes them tick, how to communicate across the generational divide and how to transfer knowledge and lessons learned. Rather than letting generational differences create roadblocks, mentoring relationships can become the cement that bonds employees together.

Help older workers feel included. The ultimate driver of any of these practices is talent attraction and retention. Thus, the ultimate measure of success is low turnover and employee engagement. The good news is that the current economic chaos can allow business leaders to make lemonade out of lemons by retaining key personnel and their vast knowledgebase — something we worried we would lose when the boomers retired. The key now is to make sure those older workers who remain in the workforce longer stay engaged, productive, and included — not just tolerated.

ABOUT Alice Waagen’s Workforce Learning

Workforce Learning LLC is a leadership development company that provides managers and C-level executives with the skills and knowledge they need to build a more productive work environment. Since founding the company in 1997, owner Alice Waagen, PhD, has developed highly effective leadership programs and coaching workshops that teach the people in charge how to motivate and inspire employees. “Research shows that the single reason most organizations fail to thrive is a lack of strong people skills among those at the top,” Alice says. “We work to ensure organizations are healthy from the top down, and ultimately if an organization has happy, energized, effective employees they find it reflected in the bottom line.” For more information, visit