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6 Ways Your Company Can Adapt to an Aging Workforce

Patrick Ball
June 20, 2014

Prepare your company to manage and lead a graying workforce.

Is Corporate America becoming the home of the gray? Statistics say so.

More Americans are working longer, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study. The percentage of men and women working past age 55 has increased over the past decade -- a trend projected to continue to 2022, when nearly a third of retirement-aged employees are expected to still be working, the study says.

An aging America and diversifying workforce means more, different needs among employees. Which, in turn, means companies must anticipate and adapt to these changing demographics.

“This is a reality,” says Melissa Mitchell, deputy director of the Global Coalition on Aging. “This is not a taboo. Creating a culture that is accepting and that understands the realities -- that is going to be essential.”

Here are six tips from Mitchell, Stephen Sweet, associate professor and visiting scholar at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, and Cash Nickerson, author of “BOOMERangs,” for how companies can adapt to an aging workforce.

  1. Be More Flexible
    In recent years, employers have become increasingly flexible about when and where employees are working. However, studies show they’ve tightened up when it comes to employees working less than full-time.

    But a fractionalized work week and phased retirement options would likely better suit a graying workforce, according to Nickerson. “We need to be able to decelerate like we accelerate the work life. Like you climb up the corporate ladder, you should be able to climb down the corporate ladder.”
  2. Make the Workplace Age-Neutral
    Whether it’s training on office technology or a BMW-style ergonomic overhaul, companies can help their older employees remain at the top of their game by making the workplace more comfortable. To that end, Mitchell’s organization is working to develop a set of principles businesses can use to create an environment that is respectful to employees of all ages and ergonomically adaptable. “So many of these things can be done without necessarily catering to an aging workforce,” she says. “It’s better for everyone.”

  3. Identify Employees’ Wants and Needs
    Nickerson suggests utilizing focus groups and outside consultants to conduct a comprehensive review of your company’s demographics and whether the workplace meets the ergonomic and cultural needs of your employees.

    This can be tricky, as employers must toe the line between being considerate and running afoul of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. “The nature of employer-employee relations can be testy sometimes, so the way you communicate is very important,” says Sweet.
  4. Offer Training
    Training is not only important for helping your older workers learn new skills and master new technologies, but also for supervisors managing employees of varying ages. Creating cross-generational teams and encouraging collaboration can help to diffuse age bias. Collectively, this could improve culture in the workplace, while also helping older employees maintain a high level of performance.

  5. Plan Ahead
    By studying your workplace demographics and planning ahead, you can develop policies that meet the needs of your workforce. For example, if you have a large population of retirement-age employees who would like to keep working in a lesser capacity, then you might consider instituting flexible options that allow workers to ease into retirement. Additionally, this will help you get succession plans in place for when workers in leadership positions do begin to retire.

  6. Take Advantage
    Instead of viewing older employees as a burden, consider seasoned, experienced employees as a boon for your business. More older employees means more skills and wisdom in the workplace, which means more potential mentors for younger employees who’ll be inheriting leadership roles when older workers retire. Whether you develop a mentoring program or just get creative with your seating arrangements, encouraging communication and collaboration among workers can help your business benefit from its diversity.

By implementing some or all of these strategies, employers can prepare themselves to adapt to an aging America and graying workforce.

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