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At Work: How Old is too Old?

By Randy Boss

Are your workers too old to be working at their job? Well, if they're at work now and have a Sony Walkman clipped to their belt listening to songs on a cassette by any group that had its first big hit before 1960, chances are there is somebody thinking, "Hmmm... maybe."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, today one in every five American workers is over the age of 65, and in 2020 one in four American workers will be over 55. That's a startling statistic with a huge effect on America's businesses. Although there is no agreement on what age a worker is considered an "older worker," there is no argument that the aging workforce phenomenon is real. These facts have made the issue of healthier workers, especially older ones, much more pressing. It should be a high priority at any workplace to manage this risk by promoting the safety, health, and well being of the workforce, especially as workers age.

More babies were born in 1946 than ever before and that trend continued until 1964. Baby Boomers, those people born between 1946 and 1964, are now between age 52 and 70. With the elimination of mandatory retirement, the enactment of age discrimination laws, better life expectancy and health, increased costs to replace employee benefits provided to full time employees, and the loss in retirement accounts during the recent economy swan dive, many workers now choose to or must remain in the workforce longer than they had originally planned. And for most of them, early retirement is largely a thing of the past.

To add to the problem is a shortage of qualified workers. As the economy continues to recover and millions of job openings are expected to appear over the next decade, there is a growing call for more educated workers to fill positions. According to a 2013 study from researchers at Georgetown University, the current higher education graduation rate is stagnant, and the economy will face a shortage of five million workers with the necessary education and training by 2020.

So what can we do to help keep these workers healthy and safe so they can continue to provide for themselves and retain their skills until they want to retire and not forced to retire because they are sick or injured? It's all about companies managing their risk.

We need to recognize that bodies change as people age. Experts tell us that people reach full physical maturity or development by age 25. Then, after a period of relative stability, bodies begin to show signs of aging. Most of these changes are first noticed at ages 40 or 50, but changes can occur (or start) as early as 20 or 25. These changes include:

Here are a few workplace solutions recommended by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that will prepare a workplace for an older, healthier, and safer workforce. They don't cost much but they can have huge benefits if implemented with input from workers and supported by all layers of management.

We hear from many of our clients that the average age of their workforce is going up and drives up the cost of their employee benefits. On the flip side, they say that older workers are very dependable, have a commitment to their job, and bring added wisdom to the job. These are all the traits you want in an employee. It's essential that we put thought and resources into keeping these employees healthy and safe at work and at home.

Randy Boss is a Certified Risk Architect at Ottawa Kent in Jenison, MI. He is a Certified WorkComp Advisor (CWCA), and a lead instructor for the Institute of Benefit & Wellness Advisors, training agents how to bring risk management to benefits.