Employers Need to Get a Grip on the Workplace of the Future

A funny thing has happened on the way to old age and retirement.  It just arrived a lot quicker for millions of 60 years and older workers than they ever anticipated … and they aren’t ready.

The problem isn’t that 60 year olds still don’t talk – and even dream – about retirement. But a combination of lack of financial preparedness and mental readiness is keeping a lot of seniors working longer.

A recent article in Fortune Magazine, obviously written by a much younger reporter, wasted no time in drawing a dramatic picture of the workforce of the future might look like.  She started the article with:

A man parks his bike and unbuckles his helmet to reveal baldness and salt-and-pepper eyebrows. A woman in orthopedic shoes makes her way into an office building, while another peers through her bifocal glasses at her smartphone, the font on the screen bumped up a few sizes for easier reading. No, this isn’t an ad for Celebrex. This is a glimpse at the workforce of tomorrow.

YIKES!  This isn’t the future – it’s now!  Worse, except for the bike and orthopedic shoes, it’s me! And I’m not alone. Currently 7.3 million American workers age 65 years and older are still working. (Fortunately I’ve got a few years before I’m included in that stat.) According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that number will nearly double to 13.2 million by 2022 as again Americans defer retirement, or as many futurists more aptly predict, they will re-define retirement. (In my opinion, these BLS statistics are grossly underestimated, just as predictions of a mass exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce won’t come to fruition.  Yes, Baby Boomers may leave a job or career they held for several decades, but then many if not most, will start another.)

Contrary to the inferences of the article, the generational gaps between young and old are not distinct.  It’s just as likely to see a young worker unbuckle his helmet and see a completely bald head as well as a “geezer” unleash a full head of hair, even a ponytail.  Likewise, young and old workers now use smartphones, although it’s a foregone conclusion that most older workers can’t see a bleeping thing without those bifocals or large fonts.  And in a digital typing race – or more accurately a keystroking competition – young workers will win hands down.

But regardless of how the similarities and differences between older and younger workers is portrayed, what the workplace looks like going forward will be undeniably different. Certainly a lot more gray hairs, bifiocals, and pictures of grandkids will be visible along with tube tops, flip flips, body piercings, and tattoos. Age spans of 40 and even 50 years will be common.  This generational shift  and age divide inherently will require every organization to address everything from healthcare benefits to ergonomics.

The major workplace transformation however will be driven by technology and globalization – and working with those conditions requires new skill sets. The definition of work has changed … and will change again sooner than later. Even basic workplace issues like accommodation for the physically impaired or disabled won’t matter because many jobs can function remotely –from a worker’s home, his winter domicile, and even a rehab or assisted living!

In preparing for the workplace of 2020, the reason to employ either or both young and old should have nothing to do with age.  The critical criteria for hiring or retaining employees must be based on skills, experience, and knowledge. And in a world that changes so quickly and where change doesn’t always evolve as much revolve, age will become less of a reliable indicator of experience and knowledge.

Employers need to get a grip on reality and start planning for the future workplace.  For many companies seniors will be an asset. For others it is young workers that will provide the horsepower and fuel to grow business. For most organizations, the blended generational workplace will be the right recipe. But it will take a lot more creativity to make it work than just saying “we hire regardless of age.”

(Special thanks to blogger Brenda Johnson for the inspiration to write this post. You can read another perspective about the Workforce of 2022 at Brenda’s Work, Career & Jobs @ 40+ Blog)


Ira S Wolfe


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  2. Beth Armknecht Miller January 22, 2012 at 2:55 pm -

    The bigger question is how do companies effectively integrate multiple generations into the workplace and leverage individual strengths. I believe the key is communications. Each generation has a different mode of communicating from verbal all the way to texting. Companies need to integrate all forms of communications in order to reach all employees.

    Second to communications is management style. Baby boomers don’t need the coddling and constant feedback that the Gen Yers need so a different style of management is needed.

    With all this said we speak in generalities when we lump specific age groups into specific behaviors, motivations, and desires. Great leaders understand the unique needs of individuals as well as teams and adapt their style to suit the audience.

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  4. […] Employers Need to Get a Grip on the Workplace of the Future Age differences of 40 or 50 years will likely be prevalent in the future workplace. This stark age difference means that employers will need to address a wide array of issues with its workers – everything from healthcare benefits to the ergonomics of desk setups. […]

  5. admin January 18, 2012 at 6:26 pm -

    Jennifer – thank you for the thoughtful response and warning. You are absolutely correct – organizations are still confounded by managing 4 generations. And now Gen Y, who are struggling to find jobs themselves, will have even more competition. As Pogo proclaimed, “we have met the enemy and it is us.”

  6. Jennifer Olsen January 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm -

    While it is unfair to stereotype all people of a certain generation as being one way or another, the upcoming years bring new challenges to companies. In 2015 the next generation will enter the workforce and when that happens we will have the greatest age diversity we have ever experienced in the workplace at one time – five generations coming together. Each generation has its own expectations regarding the work environment, what is and should be expected of them and reward systems. Being deliberate in finding ways to accommodate their various expectations will enable employers to make the most of the differences among the groups so they receive all their workers have to offer. Our most recent e-newsletter (http://hosted-p0.vresp.com/415335/688025ce51/ARCHIVE) goes into more specifics about what to consider when developing a culture that includes all five generations!