According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, today one in every five American workers is over 65. Individuals are living longer and working past the “traditional” retirement age of 62. By the year 2020, one in four American workers will be over 55. The demographic shift may manifest itself in your workplace, while at the same time more broadly affecting the labor pool and economy as a whole. By 2020, approximately 76 million “baby boomers” are expected to retire. The demographic shift means that employers will confront new challenges with respect to:
- Recruitment and retention
- Health and safety
- Disability accommodation
- Rising costs
- Labor shortages in certain industries, or with respect to certain skill sets
- Medical leave administration
- Employee relations
- Performance management
Employers cannot ignore these wide-ranging implications of an aging workforce. Now is the time to assess the impact (or potential impact) of an aging workforce on your organization and industry. You may then develop goals and a strategy to minimize risk and optimize workplace performance in a new context. Once such goal should be to manage employee relations with an understanding of, and sensitivity to generational differences among workers. This may require a more flexible approach to performance management and utilizing different styles and modes of communication. Likewise, employers should provide diversity training in order to provide employees with the tools to engage with each other respectfully and productively. Recognize that employees’ work ethic, work style, values, leadership skills, communication and learning styles may differ across generations. An aging workforce means that employees may be more likely to be directly supervised by someone much younger than them, which may cause conflict and communication challenges. Ever-evolving technological tools may present barriers to the advancement of “older employees” versus co-workers who have been operating iPads since grade school. Providing additional training tailored to employees’ individual needs may eliminate such barriers at very little cost.
Employers should recognize and capitalize on the strengths and unique contributions of their employees while proactively seeking ways to ensure mutual respect, teamwork and collaboration among a diverse workforce. To this end, however, you must avoid bias and reject stereotypes and generalizations. Members of certain “generations” may exhibit commonalities that are helpful in developing your strategy for addressing an aging workforce. However, the law absolutely prohibits employers from treating employees differently based on age. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and state law protect employees age 40 and over from discrimination. Under no circumstance should employers consider age as a factor in any employment decision, or permit employees or managers to treat an employee 40 and over differently than any other employee based on age. While it may be helpful to collect information regarding generational differences in order to foster better employee relations and increase productivity, acting on stereotypes or encouraging such behavior poses a legal risk and should be strictly prohibited. In other words, ultimately, age is and should be, just a number in your workplace.