The aging workforce and disability

My background in workforce development makes me take the larger or holistic (a term I like to use) view about our workforce. Last week’s USBLN conference in Orlando was informative and I came away with a better understanding of the specifics of employment and other initiatives for people with disabilities. However, it was still important for me to come away with some “big picture” takeaways from the conference.

The issue of an aging workforce in America is a significant one. Interestingly, this doesn’t get talked about by the two candidates for president. Workforce issues have been airbrushed from the national debate, like many other important topics.

Getting older presents a raft of challenges as well as opportunities for employers with a progressive outlook on the issue. In states like my home state of Maine, which is the oldest in the country, with a median age of 41.5, the issue will determine whether we have a enough workers to remain competitive as a state, and that day of reckoning is a little more than six years away. While Maine received an Aging Worker Initiative grant and some programming was developed, there seems to be little ongoing energy devoted to this at the state workforce level.

Thursday morning’s 8:15 breakout “The Aging Workforce: Challenges and Opportunities for Providers and Employers” was the workshop I chose to attend. Both presenters, Judy Young, associate director of the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell’s ILR School, and Susan Bruyere, who is a professor of disability studies at the school, were very good and kept my interest along with the other 25 attendees. Both presenters knew their subject and this was the most informative breakout over the three days of sessions I attended.

Here are a few statistics about the aging workforce in America:

  • One in five workers in the U.S. workforce are over 55; by 2030 that number will be one in four
  • The number of aging workers is currently 30.8 million
  • 85 percent plan to work past the traditional retirement age of 65
  • 70 percent prefer working full-time
  • According to the National Organization on Disability, nearly 22 percent of those aged 55-64 will develop a disability, most often, age-related

At the same time, history teaches us that people older than 65 remain productive and an asset to employers that recognize the contributions that aging workers bring to companies and other organizations that employ people.

Here are just a few examples that indicate being 65 years of age or older doesn’t diminish productivity in older workers:

  • Alexander Graham Bell registered a patent at 75
  • Giuseppe Verdi composed Ave Maria when he was 85
  • Martha Graham was dancing at 75 and still choreographing at 95
  • President Reagan was 69 when he took office in 1980
  • Sumner Redstone, executive chair of Viacom is 89
  • Warren Buffet, Berkshire Hathaway CEO is 81
  • Betty White is starring in the sitcom, Hot in Cleveland, at age 90

These two lists—the statistics on aging along with the list of accomplishments for those over 65—highlight an important juxtaposition of our current workforce in America in 2012. More and more of us are aging, while still very capable of remaining as productive and creative as we’ve ever been.

At the same time, claims of age discrimination are the fastest growing category of discrimination cases.

Both Young and Bruyere highlighted the issue of discrimination in terms of ADA/ADEA, as well as the myths/facts relative to aging workers.

Companies that want to remain viable and competitive are going to have to adapt to an aging population. At the same time, they’ll be rewarded for their efforts, as older workers show up for work, are quite capable, and even have fewer safety-related incidents in the workplace.

Many large, national employers, like CVS and Home Depot, recognize the migration of older workers south during the winter and have begun programs for hiring these workers while they winter in a different locale.  In fact, CVS Caremark has developed workplace solutions that look to retain skilled mature workers and recruit and train the next generation of employees. Over the past decade, CVS has forged innovative partnerships with local and national agencies and organizations in order to actively recruit employees including mature workers. The company provides substantial training, convenient locations, and flexible work schedules –including a snowbird program that enables employees to shuttle between different store regions on a seasonal basis.

CVS demonstrates that flexibility is a key element in keeping and valuing older workers.

As America grows older, finding new and innovative solutions to our changing workforce demographics will be required. Those willing to adapt and offer flexibility will attract the talent represented by aging workers. Employers who don’t will struggle.