It’s inevitable: keep a car long enough and it’s bound to have problems. The once-vigorous machine becomes a little sluggish on that long uphill or it doesn’t handle curves with quite the verve it used to. For most of us, when a car starts to show signs of age, it’s time to trade it in for a new model.
The solution to an aging workforce, however, isn’t that simple.
It’s estimated that in the next five years, 25.2 million members of the U.S. labor force will exceed the age of 55 and will remain active in the labor pool; that’s over 16 percent of the workforce. By the year 2025, that number rises to over 20 percent and the percentage of workers in their 20s, 30s and 40s decreases. Wisdom may accompany age, but so do physical limitations. Just like an older car, the body isn’t the smoothly functioning machine it once was.
The problem arises when the workplace, built to accommodate the 25 year old engineer who designed it 30 years ago, is still being used by the same, now 55 year old engineer today. The suit he wore when he designed the place probably won’t still fit him the way it once did; unsurprisingly, neither does the workplace.
But does that mean it’s time to trade in the old workforce for a fresh batch of college grads? Of course not. It means it’s time to take a look at the work and the workplace itself to determine how to tailor it to the aging worker as well as the younger worker, increasing productivity and efficiency and reducing injury potential across the board. In essence, the workplace grows up with the workforce, and with ergonomics interventions, accommodating workers, young and old, means the business has a chance to mature, too.
The Graying of the Workforce
The media might call 40 the new 30, but any age beyond 65 seems to be the new retirement age. Workers are retiring later. With advances in health care and life expectancies being higher than anyone would have dreamed a few years ago, older workers are rapidly becoming a fact and a necessity.
Workers are retiring later and staying productive longer. A 2002 poll by the AARP of American workers between the ages of 45 to 74 found that less than a third are planning to stop working when they reach their retirement years. That means more than 66 percent of today’s workers are in it for the long haul and aren’t planning to go anywhere
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2003-11-01.