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Diversity and the Aging Conundrum by Susan Welch


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 survivable.

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 done.”

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 this regard.

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 came before.

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 burden!

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 Sandwich Generation.


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 themselves felt.

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.


[1] “Aging and Life Course,” World Health Organization. Link: http://www.who.int/ageing/en/

[1] “World Population Aging: 1950-2050,” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Link: http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/worldageing19502050/

[1] Ghilarducci, Teresa, “Our Ridiculous Approach to Retirement,” New York Times, July 21, 2012. Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/22/opinion/sunday/our-ridiculous-approach-to-retirement.html?_r=0

[1][1] Vaughan, Vicki, “Major workforce shortage pounding energy industry,” FuelFix, March 20, 2013. Link: http://fuelfix.com/blog/2013/03/20/major-workforce-shortage-pounding-energy-industry/



| Contact: | Susan Welch | Founder and Lead Communicator | Q Communications Consulting | 847-477-6337  |   224-513-5351 |   

|website: www.QCommunicationsConsulting.com |



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