News headlines and expert writings about the aging population phenomenon hint at something fearful, like an epidemic or a tsunami. The alarmist tone also tinges discussion about the aging workforce. Employers are urged to prepare for this special class of employee, as if older workers represented a distinct subspecies marked by disabilities. While risk factors associated with the aging can’t be discounted, recent research raises the question of whether the graying workforce is as big a potential headache for employers as some rhetoric implies.
“Since the beginning of recorded human history, young children have outnumbered older people,” writes the National Institute on Aging (NIA), an agency of the United States Department of Health. “Very soon this will change. People age 65 and over will outnumber children under 5 years old.” According to other US official figures, 12 percent of the population of the United States is over 65 now, and 20 percent will be by 2030.
The NIA wraps up its report with: “Experience shows that it is easier to address problems sooner rather than later, when the cost of waiting may become insurmountable.”
The "problems" implied in the convening of the conference and referred to by the NIA mainly concern the cost of Social Security and health care, so it could be argued that working seniors are the least of the worry. Nonetheless, the same fretful tone characterizes the rhetoric about a graying workforce: consider how often “problems” and “limitations” – “challenges” is a popular euphemism for words like these – appear in advice to employers.
The language of several seminar outlines at the May 2007 National Ergonomics Conference and Exposition (NECE) in New York is characteristic of the prevailing tone. Each is designed to prepare conscientious employers for the “challenges” of an older workforce. Collectively, they convey the impression that older employees represent a high risk for occupational and health disorder and accidents, with a consequent impact on absenteeism, presenteeism and workers’ compensation claims.
In one seminar, participants will hear about the statistics then be shown how ergonomics can be used as a key strategy for “coping with this reality.”
The outline of a second begins with the concession that the “vast knowledge and experience” of older workers are a valuable asset, but it points out that “the aging workforce faces significant physical and cognitive limitations.”
Slips, trips and falls are the focus of a third seminar, which will address “the differences in physical, mental and performance capabilities as we age and the implications for safety.”
A fourth will teach attendees “how the bodies of older workers react to ergonomic risk factors and the total environment, … and best practices for reaching, lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling, carrying.”
A fifth will address the “health and safety challenges unique to this demographic.”
A sixth, the most telling, will explore the “declining physical and mental capacities of (an) organization’s most important asset.” The presenters say attendees can expect to leave the discussion “with an understanding of the physiological changes associated with aging that affect work performance; ergonomic interventions that will lead to successful accommodations for older workers; disorders and disease that require special ergonomic attention including diabetes, cancers, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and degenerative disc disease; and the effects of aging on both absenteeism and presenteeism, and strategies for reducing lost time and increasing productivity.”
Aging and Disability
Search “age disability” and a Google search returns 27 million references. Many represent solid evidence that countless physical and mental indignities accompany the aging process. The question is not whether they exist, but how big a headache they are likely to be for employers. Almost by definition, the graying workforce discussion is about people who regard retirement as premature because they still feel as able to work as their younger associates. And adequate medical care can lessen the impact of aging indignities where they occur.
Typical headaches for employers include diseases, disorders and impairments that afflict all ages in their workforce. Employees, regardless of age, cope. So do conscientious employers – the ones who employ ergonomic measures to accommodate a wide range of body types, abilities and disabilities. They could be regarded as well set up to deal with potential “boomer” issues.
Technology is already on hand to help. Microsoft points out that many of its products, including Windows XP operating systems, contain accessibility features. “Technology is serving as an equalizer for people with disabilities, removing workplace barriers and increasing employment opportunities while reducing social isolation," the company states on its Web site.
IBM provides free assistive software downloads that cover many types of limitation. As reported by KC Jones of TechWeb Technology News, IBM’s new alphaWorks accessibility site offers links to information about adaptive Web technology, hardware – including a keyboard optimizer and head tracking camera – and software. It also features the aDesigner, a disability simulator that helps Web designers ensure their pages are accessible. And a Reflexive Interface Builder helps software developers create applications with graphical interfaces that people with disabilities can use. IBM’s Home Page Reader 3.04 is an award-winning Web browser that talks for blind or vision-impaired computer users.
The Cognition Issue
A search on Google for “Web guidelines for older people” brings up over 24 million references! The assumption that cognitive impairment is inevitable underpins a significant body of the work.
It also underpins web design recommendations from Mark Hall, BS, MBA, CUA, of Human Factors International (HFI) in the March issue of the HFI newsletter. He prefaces his guidelines with the observation that even 50- to 65-year-olds can expect slight/moderate degradation of vision; less ability to retain much information in their working memory; and slower capacity to process information. He notes “significant deterioration in motor control and visual acuity” for the 65-80 group and “severe deterioration that could put the Web right out of reach for the over-80s.”
His recommended web design accommodations include double-spaced lines, short bulleted text, measures that reduce the demand on working memory by supporting recognition rather than recall, minimal distractions like graphics and animations, bolder navigational cues and auto-suggest for spelling on search features.
Features like these are likely to be found in any website with user-friendless as its goal, but the HFI expert’s advice is pinned on assumptions about age-related decline that, though ubiquitous, may not be rock solid. Some recent research suggests there are ways of setting back the clock, and that older people automatically marshal alternate abilities when some begin to fail.
A research team at Columbia University Medical Center has shown that an active life takes care of the mind as well as the body. Scott A. Small, M.D., associate professor of neurology at the school is lead author of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March 2007 that suggests exercise actually creates new nerve cells in the area of the brain affecting age-related memory decline. Previous research has shown that people who exercise do better on memory tests. Exercise, the researchers found, targets a region of the brain that underlies normal age-related memory decline. The finding was accomplished via the first-ever observation – using an MRI-imaging technique developed at Columbia – of the growth of nerve cells within a living brain.
“Our next step is to identify the exercise regimen that is most beneficial to improve cognition and reduce normal memory loss, so that physicians may be able to prescribe specific types of exercise to improve memory,” said Dr. Small, who is also a research scholar at the Columbia University Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain.
The interest in cognitive abilities and aging isn’t new, according to Michael Marsiske, a University of Florida associate professor who recently conducted a study on cognitive training for the elderly. He said it started in the 1970s. "People began questioning biological givens . . . not only that cognition declines with age but that it’s irreversible," he said. The experts agree that the commonsense approaches – such as a good diet, rest, consistent mental and physical exercises, and a robust social life – can help prolong cognitive fitness. Dr. Marsiske says those healthy practices can delay mental deterioration.
Publications authored or co-authored by Itiel E. Dror, a psychology professor at Southampton University in England, are cited in much of the research literature about aging and cognition. Dr. Dror shows that the cognitive differences between young and old are less significant than generally supposed. Each of the two age groups accomplished set tasks during the tests, but by different means. In 2006 he found they selected information to process by different criteria, and in 2005 he found older adults have ways of reducing the cognitive load when they are solving problems.
A decade earlier, Dr. Dror and associates assessed the “efficacy of the cognitive processes that underlie risk taking decision making in young and elderly people” in controlled laboratory tests. Thirty-six participants took part in the study. The mean age of half was 74. The mean age of the other half was 19. The elderly participants made equivalent decisions to those of the control young adults, he wrote. “Both age-groups of participants systematically and comparably changed their behavior as a function of risk levels. Furthermore, the elderly participants, relative to young adults, did not exhibit any slowing down in the speed of processing the information involved in making risk taking decisions, reflecting that healthy elderly people are cognitively apt to making risk taking decisions. Both age-groups took comparably less time on the easy trials (trials with either low or high levels of risk) and comparably more time on the difficult trials (trials with medium levels of risk).”
Technology – The Equalizer
If ergonomics-savvy employers read Craig Spiezle presentation to the White House Conference on Aging they could begin viewing graying as a consideration but nothing to fear. The ergonomic measures the CEO of the consultancy AgeLight LLC recommends for older workers are no different to the measures these employers have in place or are considering for the workforce as a whole. “To be accessible, technology must be flexible enough to meet the needs and preferences of users with varied experience and abilities. Often simple customization of the device interface can provide workers the ability to adapt their computing environment to their human factor requirements. Such personalization can benefit all users by offering increased usability, productivity, efficiency and comfort.”
Writing in the Today’s Facilities Manager in April, Robert Stuthridge, BSc, MSc, FRSH, of Integrated Ergonomics LLC, takes another line that “normalizes” the graying factor. “Before effective design evaluation can take place, it is essential to adjust the concept of what is considering “normal,” specifically with respect to the working population. By meeting the functional needs of the current worker (as previously defined by age, demographic, and physical condition), demands made on the capacities of others should not be excessive. This underlies the principle of inclusive design, in which the needs of the least functional person set the standard by which an approach is judged. … The aim is to construct an Inclusive Design Plan (IDP) that will inform and shape future furniture and equipment selection decisions. The goal of an IDP is to reduce redundancy, redesign, and replacement.
The AgeLight CEO’s presentation concludes with the observation that proactively implementing accessible technology “communicates that employability is not a function of age or physical abilities, but rather the employee’s ability to make a contribution to business objectives.”
His conclusion puts the “problem” of a graying workforce in perspective.
National Institute of Aging; National Ergonomics Conference and Exposition; Microsoft; IBM; Human Factors International; White House Conference on Aging; Today’s Facilities Manager;
Small, S.A.; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 12-16, 2007
Rafaely, V., Dror, I. E., & Remington, R. E. (2006). International Journal of Psychology 41 (2), 117-131.
Dror, I.E., Schmitz-Williams, I.C., & Smith, W. (2005). Experimental Aging Research, 31(4) 409-420.
Dror, I. E., Katona, M., & Mungur, K. (1998). Gerontology, 44 (2), 67-71
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2007-04-12.