The aging workforce is an issue discussed a lot in smart building and future workplace circles. More often than not it is mentioned in the context of a demographic bulge that will quickly disappear from the workforce, leaving a big hole that must be addressed through tech-rich workplaces that will attract younger workers. This idea of the aging workforce as a challenge to address with young people is not only age-bias but missing the chance to empower older workers for the benefit of companies and their overall productivity. For the future workplace, the aging workforce is not a problem to solve but an opportunity to seize.
By 2024, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the US labor force will grow to 164 million people. About 41 million of those workers are expected to be ages 55 and older, of which approximately 13 million will be ages 65 and older. In Europe, the aging workforce is even more pronounced, in the coming decade most EU countries will see their share of older workers increase to 55% of their overall labor force, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). While Japan has been tackling these kinds of figures since the 1990s.
All people get older at the same rate, so when we are talking about an aging workforce we are discussing the uneven demographic distribution of age. In most developed economies, many more people were born in the decade after World War II than in other decades, this created a larger group of people in a certain age bracket referred to as “baby boomers.” As that group reached working age, they increased the total working population giving a boost of talent availability to those economies but now, as that group approaches retirement age the same economies face the fact that there will be fewer people of working age.
The solutions to this have emerged in many forms. Automation lessens the need for humans altogether in certain types of work, thereby increasing productivity regardless of demographic trends. Recruitment has addressed the challenge by triggering a corporate war for the best young talent; tailoring company image, workplace attractiveness, and the nature of work itself to lure younger workers. Think flexible/remote working, eco-friendly and “cool” public relations, or bean bags, ping-pong tables and yoga studios in the office.
Few, however, consider how the range of new workplace technologies and approaches could be used to empower our older workforce. Innovative new thinking is now seeing the aging issue from another perspective, highlighting the fact that older people are now healthier and more active than ever, which is driving retirement age up and keeping more older workers in the workforce. They also point out that age brings experience, a vital element of productivity, and that all these millennials will soon be older — the aging workforce is not a current issue it will always be there.
“Society and firms are very messed up around the word ‘aging’, which invariably has negative connotations. It also fails to capture what is actually happening. People aren’t just living longer, but on average aging better and are more educated than past generations of older workers. Referring to this as an aging workforce tends to ignore this crucial opportunity,” says Andrew Scott, economist and professor of economics at London Business School.
Smart technology is central to seizing this opportunity. Modern smart buildings claim to be human-centric, designed for the needs of their occupants, but often flood offices with technology for young tech-savvy workers rather than planning around less tech-savvy older people. For many, the future workplace is discriminating by age but the reality is that by designing their offices for younger people, companies are missing out on all the benefits that could come from empowering a huge market of older more experienced workers.
“I think there’s a big question around how [employers] support people to manage their wellbeing, and support their energy and personal resilience. The model of learn-do-retire is no more; it’s more learn-do-learn-do-learn-do-rest-repeat-try something else,” says Stephanie Rudbeck, senior director, talent and reward at Willis Towers Watson. “[Employees] can no longer come in, learn to do a job and then do that until they retire. People are going to move around an awful lot. [HR leaders] need to adjust thinking around what a career is and what it means.”
The way in which traditional HR practices fail to consider the moderating impact of age and the associated changes in employees’ workforce needs over time has spurred an academic field known as life-span psychology. HR practices have developed a positive association with organizational performance but theory-building has not considered developmental dynamics across the working life and its implications, suggests ‘HR Management for an Aging Workforce – A Life-Span Psychology Perspective’, a research paper by Jorg Korff, et al.
While the notion that modern older workers can have just as much to offer than younger workers appears to be well-founded, the needs of older and younger people in the workforce are different. Optimal productivity office temperature and lighting may differ, for example, while health initiatives could focus on the needs of elderly health rather than just trying to make lazy young people more active. Digital user interfaces can be better designed for older people, as can flexible working trends, and space optimization. If the smart building adapts to its occupants then where are all the features for older workers?
“Employment will increasingly be about adaptability, resilience, listening and communicating,” says Michael Osbaldeston, special adviser at London-based City & Guilds Group. “Those are the skills that enable each of the generations in the workplace to successfully transition into what is going to be a world that happens at a faster and faster pace.”