People + Process = Performance

Optimizing and Designing the Workplace for Aging (Chronologically Gifted) Workers Part 1

Did you know?:

  • People age 45+ now comprise the majority of the US population1
  • Fewer older workers expect to retire at age 62 or 652
  • It is expected by the year 2020, one quarter of the labor force will be 55-and-older3
  • New estimated retirement age used by insurance company actuaries is now 74 years old4
  • Older workers more likely to have carpal tunnel syndrome5

Given the above facts, it is imperative that employers start to consider and implement workplace changes that will allow their older workers to remain engaged, productive and healthy.  Before I describe those changes it is important to understand the factors behind the changing workforce and the advantages and challenges (physical and cognitive) presented by the older worker.

Preparing for the “Silver Tsunami”

There is no doubt that we are seeing the graying of the American workforce.  Consider that the average age of the worker in 1972 was 28 and in 2008 it was 40.6.  The average age will continue to increase during the next decade.  Overall we are seeing a slight increase in the percentage of young workers (18-24), a greater increase in the percentage of older workers (>55) and a decrease in the percentage of workers in between.  The reasons for the increase in older workers can be contributed to the Baby Boomer generation reaching retirement age and the economic recession which has kept would-be retirees in the workforce due to reduced savings and fewer employer-sponsored retirement benefits.

Common Myths of Older Workers

There are three common myths regarding older workers that need to be debunked.

1)      Older workers are not eager to learn and can’t be taught new skills—The truth is that older workers are on par with their younger counterparts when it comes to learning new skills.  The method of training may be different but older workers are just as eager as and sometimes more so to learn than younger workers.

2)      Older workers are more likely to be injured than younger workers—The truth is that injuries rates of older workers are below levels of younger workers; however when older workers get injured or ill they take a lot longer time to heal.

3)      Older workers can’t provide the same productivity and quality of work as younger workers—The truth is that older workers are typically more satisfied in their jobs and take greater pride in their work than younger workers which results in the same or sometimes better productivity and quality compared to younger workers.

Advantages of the “Chronologically Gifted”

There are several benefits to employing older workers that will assist employers maintain a reliable, dedicated workforce  and can provide cost savings for both the short and long term.  Here are 10 advantages for employing older workers:

  • Lifetime of knowledge built up overtime can offset declines in work cognitive skills (learn how to compensate)
  • Less absenteeism
  • Increased loyalty and retention rate
  • Higher motivation
  • More reliable/punctual
  • Detail-oriented, focused and attentive
  • Better organizational skills
  • Maturity and less likely to become “rattled” when problems occur
  • Make excellent role models and mentors
  • Strong work ethic/pride in a job well done

Challenges of the “Chronologically Gifted”

The challenges that occur with older workers are due to the changes that naturally happen to humans as we age.  There are physical, physiological and psychosocial changes that occur.  These changes need to be understood by employers in order for them to incorporate or modify the design of the workplace to fit the capabilities of older workers.  The good news is that the majority of these design changes equally fit both older and younger workers.

Physical Changes

These are the outward changes that are most obvious.  The primary physical concerns are:

  • Strength:  25-30% decrease at 65 years
  • Flexibility:  20% decrease at 65 years
  • Balance:  1/3 of  people over age 65 will fall each year
  • Sight:  Decreases
  • Reaction time:  Increases
  • Hearing:  1/3 decrease at 65 years compared to 20’s
  • Manual dexterity and tactile feedback:  Reduced
  • Increased body fat composition, less muscle

Vision and hearing are two specific areas that deserve more attention, specifically:


  • 80% of the information we gather is with our eyes
  • Speed and precision of accommodation decreases after age 40
  • By age 60 80% of us need glasses   (how does this figure into safety glasses)
  • Contrast sensitivity decreases with age
  • More time needed to achieve visual accuracy
  • Color matching declines with age, especially blue and yellow


  • Decreases 2-3.5%/year throughout life
  • Elderly adults have decreased ability to tune out background noise
  • Hearing deficiencies are 2x more common in adults w/ diabetes

Physiological Changes

Physiological changes are not visually apparent but they contribute greatly to endurance and fatigue issues.  The primary concerns are:

  • Oxygen exchange:  40% decrease at 65 years
  • Respiratory system:  25% less at 65 years, 50% less at 70 years
  • Cardiovascular system:  20% less at 65 years
  • Blood Pressure:  Increases
  • Fatigue:  Occurs more quickly
  • Hot/Cold Temperatures:  Difficulty accommodating

Psychosocial/Cognitive Ability Changes

The attitudes and preferences for work and learning tend to change as we age.  The primary concerns are:

  • Information processing:  Does not appear to decrease with age; however, how they learn changes
  • Distractibility/Sound level:  More and more annoyed by sounds
  • Shift preferences:  Mornings, less night/rotating shift work
  • Training and learning:  More structured training
  • Disengagement:  More likely

We’ve looked at the myths of older workers and the changes that naturally occur with age.  In part 2 we’ll look at what employers can and should be doing to best accommodate their older workers to keep them healthy and productive–a vital part of their workforce.