The Age Factor

With a growing number of Americans expecting to continue working well past the traditional retirement age, employers are confronting the challenges of an aging workforce.

Thursday, September 19, 2013
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During her first 43 years at La Jolla, Calif.-based Scripps Health, "Joyce" (not her real name) was a model employee. She worked her way up the ranks to project manager and routinely juggled numerous assignments with ease. As she reached her late 60s, however, Joyce's supervisors and co-workers began to notice she was exhibiting early signs of Alzheimer's disease.

"The things we observed weren't detrimental to her ability to get the job done. No one was in danger, and she wasn't wandering around aimlessly, but they were just early stage [symptoms] that weren't characteristic of her," says Vic Buzachero, senior vice president for innovation, human resources and performance management. (He declined to give further details.)

Recognizing it was getting difficult for Joyce to maintain her usual workload, Scripps' management made adjustments to her job structure that would enable her to continue working. While her title and salary remained the same, Joyce's duties were cut in half. Reporting responsibilities were eliminated and some of her work was shifted to other project managers.

"Her job was not going away, but the sorts of things she was doing were redirected so the issues we noted would not impact any outcomes," says Buzachero. "We made sure the work was meaningful and significant, but there was just less of it. Instead of having five or six projects, she might have two big ones, which made it easier for her to stay focused."

Not wanting Joyce to feel "devalued" or get defensive about her symptoms, her managers made the changes without engaging her in any discussions about her condition. While they were admittedly keeping her in the dark about the true rationale for the changes in her duties, they believed this non-confrontational approach would help her retain her dignity.

"You have to maintain the person's pride and integrity and respect as an individual, because they think they are still functioning even when they are in their disease in a significant way," says Buzachero.

While Scripps' approach might seem like a considerate way to help an aging employee deal with the scourge of Alzheimer's disease, it could lead to resentment and productivity issues among co-workers, cautions David DeLong, president of David DeLong & Associates in Concord, Mass., and author of Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of An Aging Workforce.

"For a beloved co-worker, other employees may willingly pick up the slack for a period of time, but productivity demands today make it increasingly difficult to tolerate substandard performance in colleagues," says DeLong. "Asking employees to cover for another worker's disability for an unlimited period is likely to lead to increased resentment and possibly more turnover."

The strategy at Scripps worked for 18 months, until Joyce began to notice her job had been narrowed significantly. Growing increasingly dissatisfied, she retired two years ago.

The Graying Workforce

Not every employer will deal with something as challenging as an Alzheimer's-afflicted employee, but most will be -- and, in many cases, already have been -- undoubtedly facing an increasingly older workforce. According to the 2012 Wells Fargo Retirement Survey, 70 percent of middle-class Americans say they'll work in retirement, with one-third believing they will need to "work until at least 80" in order to live comfortably in their post-work years.

While she questions whether people will actually work until the ripe old age of 80, Ruth Finkelstein -- senior vice president for policy and planning at the New York Academy of Medicine in New York, and director of the Age-Friendly NYC initiative -- says longer life expectancies, financial realities and the desire to remain a contributing member of society have changed the way people feel about working well into their golden years.

"A person turning 65 in the United States today can expect to live another 25 years. That's not how retirement was conceptualized, as a whole third of your life on permanent vacation," says Finkelstein. "It's not what people want to do and it's not what they are financially able to do. Both of those things are driving peoples' desires and expectations to stay in the workforce longer."

That's good news for employers that have been struggling to find ways to replace what they expected to be vast numbers of retiring baby boomers. With those individuals opting to stay in the workforce, organizations will be able to continue reaping the benefits of their skills and institutional knowledge. An aging workforce brings far more than experience, however. Along with it comes a new slate of challenges and prejudices that must be addressed if employers hope to realize the full benefit of an increasingly mature workforce. From managing brief, yet damaging indignities, dubbed microaggressions, to accommodating physical limitations to offering flexible work schedules and retraining initiatives, employers are taking steps to ensure their aging population is able to remain on the job.

Easing the Infirmities

While the vast majority of people will never experience a significant cognitive decline, the number of Americans with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia is expected to increase dramatically as the older population continues to grow. Currently, 5 million Americans age 65 and older are believed to have Alzheimer's disease, according to the Chicago-based Alzheimer's Association. By 2025, that number is expected to increase by 40 percent, to 7.1 million. By 2050, the number of cases is projected to reach 13.8 million, barring the development of medical breakthroughs to prevent, slow or stop the disease.

"The prevalence of age-related conditions, such as Alzheimer's, is going to explode because of the aging population," says Richard Cohen, a partner in the labor and employment litigation department at New York-based Fox Rothschild. "If it advances to a certain state, [those afflicted] won't be able to perform the job at all, but as long as the person can still do the job, the employer has to make accommodations."

Legally, Scripps was right to make accommodations for its struggling employee, but Cohen cautions employers not to coach managers to be on the lookout for Alzheimer's and similar cognitive problems.

"When you train someone to spot Alzheimer's, you are priming them to look for some reason to oust someone of age," says Cohen. "That encourages or incentivizes people to do things you don't want them to do."

Accommodating age-related physical limitations has become merely part of doing business for Hoag, a Newport Beach, Calif.-based healthcare-delivery network.

With a growing number of workers in their 60s, 70s and 80s, Hoag regularly finds itself responding to ergonomic-related requests -- for different chairs, stools, desks or keyboards, for example. This willingness to ease the infirmities that sometimes come with advancing age extends not only to the network's 5,000 employees, but also to the 2,400 volunteers who work throughout Hoag's two acute-care hospitals, seven health centers and five urgent-care centers, according to Jan Blue, senior vice president of human resources.

At the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., where 47 percent of the workforce is 50 or older, the agency routinely provides accommodations such as specialized lighting, text-to-voice capabilities and larger computer monitors. Employees make requests for such accommodations via the NIH intranet. According to Phil Lenowith, deputy director of human resources, the agency's technology-savvy workforce often brings suggestions for specialized software or other helpful tools to management's attention, asking "Can I get it?" NIH also provides shuttle buses to help older workers -- or any employees with impaired mobility -- get around campus or to off-site facilities.

Most of the time, says Finkelstein, special policies are not necessary for addressing the needs of older employees.

Existing policies designed to accommodate employees with disabilities are sufficient. Likewise, work/life policies already on the books will usually satisfy the desire for a flexible work schedule, a common request of mature workers.

"A lot of people want to keep working, but they don't want to work 60 hours a week," says David DeLong, president of David DeLong & Associates in Concord, Mass., and author of Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of An Aging Workforce. "As we move to an environment where there are significantly more older workers and management feels they must retain them, you are going to see a lot more focus on flexible work hours."

Leveraging Flexible Options

Flexible scheduling is a common option at NIH, which actively seeks out older workers via recruiting fairs and social media, such as LinkedIn and Facebook. The options run the gamut, from part-time and flexible hours to telecommuting.

"For the older workers, especially the sandwich generation dealing with kids in high school or college as well as elderly parents, the ability to work from home is something that really appeals to them," says Lenowith.

As he approaches his own retirement, 63-year-old Lenowith has taken advantage of the agency's flex options himself. One week each month, he works from the Asheville, N.C., mountain home where he and his wife eventually plan to "end up." A year and a half into the arrangement, Lenowith says his ability to divide his time between the two locations lets him continue working in a fulfilling job that allows him to make a difference every day. As a result, he's not rushing into retirement anytime soon.

"As long as this keeps working, I'm going to keep doing it," says Lenowith. "I'm heavily attached to this mission and I'm not ready to give that up."

While Lenowith gains satisfaction from continuing to work in his existing job, many older Americans find themselves ready for a "second act," says Finkelstein. Engineers may look to become teachers; managers may long to be artists. Such a desire to take on a new role lends itself well to the temp industry, according to Jocelyn Lincoln, vice president of recruitment operations, Americas Region, for Troy, Mich.-based Kelly Services Inc.

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"Our model of going after challenging work and different experiences really fits a mature-worker profile," says Lincoln. "They may not be interested in being a 9-to-5, W-2 employee, but they would like to do some project work."

Through a long-standing partnership with AARP (formerly the American Association for Retired Persons) as well as community organizations, Kelly Services actively recruits retirees who are interested in re-entering the workforce but not in a traditional job. Other employers stand to gain from bringing retirees back for project work as well, says Tom Davenport, a senior consultant in the San Francisco office of Towers Watson.

"I may not want to work 12 months a year, but I have more to offer and if you have a project you want me to work on for four months or six months, that's going to suit me just fine," says Davenport. "That opens up the possibility for employers to say, 'Here's the kind of work we have coming up. Would that be a good fit for what you are interested in doing?' "

Reducing the Friction

Whether they're working full-time or part-time, or coming in for the occasional special project, older employees might be surprised to find themselves on the receiving end of "microaggressions," according to Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Originally coined by Derald Wing Sue, a professor at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York, microaggressions refer to "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities ... that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative slights and insults to the target person or group."

Microaggressions can be as overt as the use of age-related epithets such as "gramps," "geezer," or "old man" or as subtle as leaving mature workers out of after-work social activities. Either way, says Pitt-Catsouphes, they have a negative impact on their well-being and work-related outcomes.

Microaggressions are typically the byproducts of misperceptions that younger managers have about older generations, according to Peter Cappelli, George W. Taylor professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in Philadelphia.

"They think of people who are burned out and cranky and technology has passed them by," says Cappelli, co-author with Bill Novelli of Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order. "They have this stereotype in the backs of their minds and that's just not the reality of the changing nature of older individuals."

Recognizing the need to "reduce the friction" between older employees and younger managers, NIH regularly holds seminars based on the book When Generations Collide: Who They Are. Why They Clash. How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work by Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman.

"The best way to address it is to not ignore it, but to deal with it head-on and make sure everybody hears about the differences between the generations," says James Micelli, management analyst at NIH. "It's good to recognize we've had different experiences and we need to value that in each other."

Similarly, Scripps offers a three-hour seminar on how different generations view the workplace and the world at large.

Developed in-house and available throughout the organization, the seminar has proven extremely popular and has helped the company promote harmony throughout its multi-generational workforce.

At Kelly Services, Lincoln refers to such endeavors as "myth busting." In addition to offering internal training designed to confront stereotypes and dispel such myths, the temporary employment agency counsels its client organizations on managing a multi-generational workforce as well.

One of the most deeply-held myths about older employees is they won't be interested in training and development or that extending such opportunities to mature workers is a waste of money, says Finkelstein.

"Some employers think it's not worth it because an older worker has one foot out the door," says Finkelstein. "In reality, an older worker will probably be with your company longer than a younger worker because the latter is more likely to leave and get a different job."

At Hoag, mature workers are encouraged to take advantage of training and development opportunities, particularly when they find that advancing age is making it difficult to perform the duties of their current job. Nurses who are struggling with lifting requirements, for example, are given the opportunity to learn new skills to enable them to transfer to a less physically taxing position. According to Blue, it's all a matter of retaining valued workers.

"These people have been loyal to us for 30 or 40 years. As they get older, we certainly need to be loyal to them," says Blue. "They'll say, 'I can't keep up with the physical demands of this job anymore. Is there something else out there?' And we'll immediately start working to teach them new skills and transfer them to something else where it's not nearly as much" of a stress-inducer.

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