Monday, February 6, 2012

How does the workplace have to change because of the aging boomers?

Last week I participated in a CBC series entitled, "The Silver Ceiling". The overall series concept was driven by the leading edge of the baby boom generation hitting 65 this year. My contribution was to speak about how workplace safety and health in light of this demographic shift.

As we age (and as many of us know first hand) our bodies change. Our eyesight and colour perception change beginning in our forties and fifties, muscle strength and hearing acuity decline, and co-morbidities such as high blood pressure and diabetes increase. Obesity is also associated with age. Reaction time slows and recovery times increase.The need for medications often increases and with these often come side effects such as drowsiness.

But it's not all bad news. We certainly gain experience as we age. That experience and knowledge allow us to avoid many of the risks in workplace environments.

How should the workplace change? I'm not suggesting radical steps. Improved task lighting, for example, will allow aging eyes to work more comfortably. Removing clutter from control panel designs to shop bench workstations will prevent errors that may cause injury. Improving ergonomics by limiting weights, supplying lifts (and the training and support so they are actually used), increasing the font size on signs, reducing tripping hazards through high contrast step edges, adding handrails — all of these changes are low cost adaptations that can improve workplaces for all workers not just aging boomers.

I believe we'll see more and more older workers in the workplace. I recently downloaded data from Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey that demonstrates a fundamental shift in workplace demographics that I believe will continue for years to come. The following chart shows the number of workers in the B.C. labour force who are younger (under 25) and older (aged 55 and older). The largest core of workers is aged 25 to 55 and is not shown on the chart but as you can see, older workers now outnumber younger workers in the BC employed labour force.
I’m not the only one who is predicting that we'll see more older workers in the labour force in the future. We don’t have enough young people to replace those that are retiring so many older workers will be enticed to work longer. Some will have to work longer for financial reasons but most will want to work to some degree because research has shown, work is good for you. Even if older workers want more flexibility so they can travel and enjoy family, many will also want an opportunity on a part-time basis to be engaged in the labour force, and use the skills and knowledge they've developed over a lifetime.

I gave about a half dozen interviews on this topic and one interviewer turned the question around and asked what older workers can do about their workplace health and safety. The traditional advice still stands: eat right, get plenty of exercise, get regular check ups, etc. Be aware of changes in your body, the effects of aging, age-related health conditions, and the effects of medications you may have to take. When you think about it, that advice applies to everyone.

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