Our aging workforce: a crisis or opportunity?

By Ronn E. Williamson  

Statistics show that more than 10,000 people are retiring each day in the U.S. and that number is increasing rapidly due to the size of the “Baby Boomer” population.  According to recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, by the year 2010 there will a shortage of more than 10 million skilled workers in this country.  

Pockets of severe shortages are evident even today in certain industries such as healthcare, but there is the mistaken belief that this is just shifting workforce demographics at work again.  Not true!  Baby Boomers constitute a giant population wave that is permanently changing the landscape as it rolls along. 

As Baby Boomers leave the workforce, it will mean scrambling to attract the smaller population of young workers and bidding up wages for all skilled positions.  How will organizations avoid this coming worker shortage before it turns into a crisis? 

Healing the Rift

Simply put, the key will be in retaining older workers longer. But there is a huge rift that has been increasing in recent years between older workers and the organizations that employ them.  If we are to depend on the experience and expertise of older workers in the future, we must start to address the negative stereotypes of aging that reside in our workplaces and our society. 

In December of 2002, the Conference Board, in a survey of 1500 workers from member organizations, revealed that one third of those age 50 to 55 do not feel respected by their company.    

A recent fact sheet on older workers by Jan Hively, of the University of Minnesota College of Continuing Education, summarized common employer myths about older workers as:

Age is a deterrent to productivity

Jobs are not important to the older worker

Advance in age is correlated with diminishing value on the job

Older workers are rigid, inflexible, and unable to compete mentally

Difficult (not worth it) to train older workers

Isn’t it curious to hear that older workers view their organizations as rigid and inflexible while the organizations themselves view older workers as rigid and inflexible?

Third Age Transformation

The opportunity presented by our aging workforce comes from what Dr. William Sadler refers to as second growth in his book “The Third Age – 6 Principles For Growth and Renewal After Forty.”  

Instead of viewing life after age 50 as downhill, second growth means individuals can create a fulfilling new roadmap for this period in their life journey.  With Baby Boomers at 76 million strong, such a paradigm shift for aging will have a tremendously positive impact in our workplaces and society.  

Significant change will require three things: 1) a process of personal transformation, which calls for reflection and openness to change; 2) an organizational change in attitude, perspective, and policies towards third age workers; and 3) a redefinition of retirement as a period of growth with new forms of work. 

Dr. Sadler gives an example in his book using a fifteen-year connection to a man he called Woody.  Woody was a successful lawyer working in healthcare who began a new life plan in his forties.  He reduced his long hours on the job by managing his office to develop delegation and teamwork skills. The extra time he gained was used volunteering, which led to a totally new career in his late fifties.  By the time he was 63, he was still working hard and loving every minute of it. 

The Role of Employers

Employers must be able to work with senior employees at all levels to determine their needs and desires and make plans accordingly. 

For example, as the shortage of Registered Nurses (RNs) continues to grow, a study by Carol Brewer, a professor at the University of Buffalo, concluded that key strategies should be focused on the older nurse to keep RNs in the workforce longer.  Recommendations included improved working conditions, tuition breaks for additional training, and benefits like flexible work hours – solutions other than just throwing money at the problem in the form of higher wages.

What must be done will vary by organization and industry.  Collectively and individually, we must recognize and tap this incredible human resource potential to avoid the unprecedented shortage of skilled workers that will follow the Baby Boomer wave – and we can change the destructive, negative stereotypes of aging in the process.

© 2004 By Ronn E. Williamson  All rights reserved.


Ronn Williamson is a consultant and trainer and a member of The Center for Third Age Leadership.