Productive aging in the workplace

Supporting your aging workforce is not only beneficial to employees, but it can ensure a good balance of skills for your workplace.

The concept of “productive aging” is not new. Robert Butler , a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and founding director of the National Institute on Aging first coined the term in the early 1980s.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has since adopted it and defines productive aging as “an approach that emphasizes the positive aspects of growing older. In the context of work, productive aging involves providing a safe and healthy work environment for everyone through comprehensive strategies that allow workers to function optimally at all ages.”

With age comes ability

Older workers contribute to areas critical to an organization’s success. According to a survey of employers by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) commissioned by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), older workers tend to excel in the following areas:

  • Experience and institutional knowledge
  • Problem-solving and critical thinking
  • Engagement and motivation
  • Productivity
  • Professionalism and customer service
  • Reliability and loyalty

The statistics show the need for workers of all ages

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 25 percent of working Americans will be age 55 and older by 2024, and many of them plan to work past the age of 65. The Bureau says this is in part because the baby boomer generation is living longer than past generations, so workers are preparing for longer retirements.

In fact, a U.S. Census Bureau report states that the population of workers 65 and over will nearly double by 2050, from 48 million to 88 million, which means just about every employer could be looking for ways to assist these employees and should look to them to help share their skills and experience before they retire.

“Every company needs time to transfer knowledge, especially industry-specific knowledge,” said Jody Rogers, SFM Senior Vice President, Human Resources. “Leaders should be looking to learn from subject matter experts and work with them to transfer skills to other team members. It helps organizations figure out what’s important to train on and to identify gaps, therefore departing employees should be looked at as important resources.”

Rogers said step one in this process is to foster an environment in which potential retirees can openly communicate their needs and share their retirement date without fear of retribution. She explained that change has to come from the top down within an organization, with managers and supervisors playing a crucial role.

“At SFM, we have created a culture that encourages employees come to us far in advance of their retirement, often a year or more, to tell us what they’re thinking for their future,” Rogers said. “That’s unheard of and it goes to show that a positive environment with open dialogue benefits everyone.”

Employers should also keep in mind that the population of younger employees with the education and skills to step into those roles is not large enough to fill all the positions currently held by employees with retirement plans in the near future. According to a study by Georgetown University , the US will have a 5 million-worker shortage by 2020 because 65 percent of the 31 million jobs that will be vacated by retiring baby boomers will require some postsecondary education and training.

Rogers suggested organizations focus on hiring and retaining employees at all ages for their skills rather than based on the number of years they may be able to keep that person on staff. She said the quality of work older employees can contribute may make their shorter tenure worth it for an organization. For example, hiring experienced employees could come with benefits like a shorter onboarding and training period.

“If someone wants to come in everyday and work, and they are passionate about their work and highly skilled, why wouldn’t you want to hire them?” Rogers said. “There are also no guarantees a younger employee will stick around any longer than the employee nearing retirement age.”

Tips for supporting aging workers

Rogers shared a few ways employers can help maturing employees keep working while planning for their futures:

  • Be open to providing opportunities for increased income, which may be especially beneficial for those employees looking to add to their retirement funds.
  • Allow employees to take on jobs with fewer responsibilities or that are less demanding. This may include transferring them to a different department and modifying their workspace or physical duties.
  • Accommodate flexible work schedules and arrangements, including telecommuting.
  • Enable employees to reduce hours and shift from full-time to part-time.
  • Support employees who are caregivers for loved ones. This duty can cause an employee to miss a day or more of work, sometimes unexpectedly. Being a caregiver can be taxing on the employee emotionally, physically and financially.
  • Consider the needs of employees of all ages when choosing benefits for your workforce.
  • Encourage employees to participate in succession planning, professional development training and mentoring. Consider offering mentoring options that enable sharing knowledge in both directions because all generations can learn skills from one another.
  • Offer phased retirement planning resources. A Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies (TCRS) survey states that only 20 percent of employers offer a formal, phased retirement program for employees who want to transition into retirement, but a program like this ranks among the top items requested of employers. These programs often define employee use of resources, such as benefits and personal time off, but can also encompass other elements:
    • Financial counseling and income planning. Rogers said SFM sets up opportunities for employees to meet with a financial advisor every year. It is so well received that slots fill up quickly, and it’s a service offered as part of the annual fee for SFM’s investment management partner.
    • Retirement-oriented lifestyle and transition planning resources. This could include information about encore career opportunities and ways to stay busy after retirement, such as volunteering and hobbies.

Overall, employers should put an emphasis on developing sustainable strategies for supporting the physical, mental and financial health of an aging workforce. This should encompass safety in the workplace and wellness in general. An added bonus is that these strategies can be beneficial for employees of all ages.

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