By now, many businesses have seen the coming storm. A “gray tsunami” is
approaching, hitting all corners of the globe. The World Health Organization
projects a whopping 2 billion people will be aged 60 and older by 2050.
According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs,
our current aging trend is unprecedented. Never in human history has our
population aged--and increased--so rapidly.
As we ponder modern life, the underlying conditions that support an aging
explosion are quite noticeable. Advances in technology are coming fast and
furious—such that we can barely tolerate our electronic devices if they are
more than a year old. Those advances improve our lives in many ways. Most
directly, advances in technology improve health care, resulting in new
treatment approaches, new medications, new surgical procedures and new
resources available to both patients and caregivers. As an example, some
cancers that used to be life threatening only a decade ago now are
considered long-term health conditions that, while not curable, are
Advances in health care are boosted by our “shrinking” planet of 24/7
messages reaching rapidly across the globe. If a text message can be sent
halfway across the world in split seconds, so can medical and health care
treatments and protocols. Thus, health care discoveries made by any one
country belong, now, to the world.
Today’s unprecedented aging boom is not only sweeping, it is irreversible.
Barring a widespread pandemic, our world will never return to the youthful
population that has dominated throughout human history.
An aging society brings with it many new concerns and unanticipated needs.
Coming along for the ride are diversity and inclusion challenges—some
obvious, some not so evident. Particularly in the workforce, aging brings
unique and sometimes difficult inclusion issues.
Not Your Father’s Generation Gap
Workplaces have hosted generation gaps before. These gaps became somewhat
volatile, perhaps, in the 1970s, when teenagers stepped out decisively to
distinguish themselves from their parents’ generation.
Yet it’s only today, with the rise of Millennials, that the younger
generation is poised to truly drive change in the workforce. Again,
technology underpins the shift we’re seeing. Millennials arrive in the
workforce accustomed to different, more ubiquitous abilities to connect to
others. They are savvy in ways to communicate and get things done anywhere,
at any time.
Let’s pause to make this tangible: Who, among Generations X and older, did
not learn to text from a Millennial?
A Millennial’s ease with technology also directly explains some of the
generational clash among workers. Millennials enter the workforce believing
they know more than their predecessors. And, when it comes to technology,
frequently they do know more.
Millennials must slow down and recognize the inherent value in the cultural
and process-based knowledge older workers possess. But GenX and Boomer
workers need to acknowledge that Millennials do, in some ways, offer new
knowledge. They bring with them different approaches to work that might be
jarring to corporate cultures that do things “the way they’ve always been
The speed of work has increased steadily, thanks to technology. What the
Millennial generation brings is a sense of ubiquity. Work, in a Millennial’s
world, can be done anywhere, at any time, because access is as easy as
reaching into one’s pocket for a mobile phone.
Bringing generations together in an environment that is deliberately
non-threatening helps. Even better, employers should pull generations
together intentionally, with the clearly stated purpose of
cross-fertilization. Generations can, and should, learn from each other. And
why stop there? They also can learn to appreciate—and value—each other.
Abilities That Are… Tiring
If the idea of keeping up with Millennials tires some of us, there’s a
reason for that. As people age their abilities, to put it nicely, change.
Nothing is new about the woes of an aging body. Humans have always
encountered deteriorating eyesight, declining strength, slowed dexterity and
other maladies associated with getting older.
What’s new is that the workforce, like it or not, will need to better
accommodate these conditions.
Why? A look at aging trends and their implications offers an explanation.
If our societies are getting older, the workforce, correspondingly, also
will age. Some older workers will need to remain on the job, well past
“traditional” retirement age, due to financial constraints. When poor
economic conditions strike, workers of all ages feel the pain. Older workers
might feel that pain disproportionately. They may have tapped into
retirement savings to survive some rough years. Or, they may have been
unable to save for retirement.
Indeed, in the United States, 75 percent of Americans approaching retirement
in 2010 reported having less than $30,000 put aside for retirement savings.
That isn’t a sustainable number—no one can live more than a year or two on
that kind of accumulated savings. Clearly, aging Americans will need to
continue working to sustain themselves. And America is far from unique in
For many global industries, older workers staying on the job will be a
blessing. Consider the oil industry. Ten years from today, at least half of
oil industry workers will retire, taking with them institutional knowledge
and skills built over careers lasting decades.
Similarly, the nursing industry is experiencing shortages already—shortages
likely not only to persist, but become more dramatic as an older population
demands increased nursing care.
Enticing these workers to remain on the job will mean, among many things,
ensuring they can work comfortably. The accommodations already in place for
people with disabilities will not be sufficient. Aging workers frequently
struggle with deteriorating vision, both near and far. Company-wide
standards around font sizes, workspace lighting, onsite signage and printed
materials can help.
Hearing, too, tends to decline with age. Providing support for seniors,
including special telephone equipment as needed, can alleviate this concern.
Physical abilities diminish, aches and pains increase, workers find it
difficult to perform physical tasks—or sit continuously—as they age. Across
the board, employers should review their workplace standards with an eye
toward the comforts of an elderly worker.
Mixing the Mix
The challenges of incorporating aging workers are compounded by the
projected worker shortages noted above.
Many countries, already struggling with aging and anticipating difficulties
to come, are beginning to entice migrants from overseas to take on key
workforce roles and to boost younger populations.
As a result, countries and workforces, face an ever-expanding cultural mix.
Soon, workforces will consist of a potpourri of workers from countries
across the globe possessing scattered racial and ethnic backgrounds. This
mix brings many benefits—but employers will need to focus on creating an
inclusive, welcoming culture. More specifically, employers need to instill
in all workers an appreciation of differences, ensuring the collective
workforce will be greater than the sum of its parts.
The Workers Left Behind
Even with many older workers on the job, younger workers will remain.
That younger generation faces challenges just beginning to emerge in nations
such as China. There, the youngest generation sits at the bottom of an
inverted pyramid, responsible for supporting the elderly generations that
In a country with a one-child policy, young Chinese people are, according to
tradition, responsible for their parents’ wealth and well-being—not to
mention the health and welfare of their grandparents. Talk about an economic
For China, this inverted pyramid is a challenge today. For the rest of the
world a similar, if less pronounced, pyramid will increasingly become the
challenge of tomorrow.
Younger workers face burdens exponentially greater than those of the
Sandwich Generation. As people continue to live well into their 70s and 80s,
middle-generation workers might be responsible not only for their parents,
but for their grandparents, let alone their own spouses and children.
This is a burden for societies, but as has been seen with the Sandwich
Generation, it’s a burden for employers, too. In difficult economic times,
young and middle-aged workers will be squeezed from every end.
Flexibility is an obvious solution—letting workers take a sick day for an
ailing relative, letting workers leave for appointments without question,
letting workers take on shorter hours for reduced pay, so they can
effectively juggle all the constraints on their time.
But flex-time will not be enough. Employers should begin looking at their
benefits offerings. Providing financial aid or other benefits connected to
children and aging relatives may make a critical difference to the new
Aging brings problems that are both overt and subtle—but one way or another,
the changes coming to the workforce thanks to an aging society will make
Employers can keep ahead of these challenges by beginning today to consider
every angle of the “aging problem,” and by beginning to implement solutions
now to help the workforce of tomorrow.
“Aging and Life Course,” World Health Organization. Link:
“World Population Aging: 1950-2050,” United Nations Department of Economic
and Social Affairs. Link:
Ghilarducci, Teresa, “Our Ridiculous Approach to Retirement,” New York
Times, July 21, 2012. Link:
Vaughan, Vicki, “Major workforce shortage pounding energy industry,”
FuelFix, March 20, 2013. Link:
| Contact: |
Susan Welch | Founder and Lead Communicator |
Q Communications Consulting |