Helping Older Workers Remain Productive: Technological Devices Developed for People with Disabilities Can Help Aging Workers Remain Highly Productive and Enable Employers to Avoid the Pitfalls of Losing Experienced Workers and Suffering a Labor Shortage

Article excerpt

A dramatic transformation is taking place in the U.S. labor force: it is turning gray. By the end of this decade, more than 51 percent of American workers will be 40 or older, a 33 percent increase since 1980. By 2020, the number of American workers aged 55 and older is expected to reach 20 percent, up from 13 percent in 2000.

This demographic shift is being driven by the aging of the baby boom generation--the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, who now represent more than a quarter of the U.S. population. It's not the first demographic shift to result from baby boomers moving through different life stages, and it won't be the last.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century; the evolving needs of the baby boom generation caused significant changes in our society, leading to the construction of new schools, the birth of new communities, and the creation of new industries. As the baby boomers came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, colleges expanded and enrollments soared, creating a highly educated workforce and swelling the consumer population that drove the economic growth of the 1980s and 1990s.

To date, few employers have fully prepared for the graying of the baby boomers and the impact of this trend. Soon, many businesses, government agencies, and other organizations will need to make extensive changes in their workplace policies and operations, including their use of technology:

NOT IMMUNE TO AGING

As the oldest baby: boomers near retirement age and the youngest enter their 40s, their needs are changing. Society--and this includes the workplace--will be forced to adapt. Baby boomers are healthier, and destined to live longer, than generations before them. Many are also planning to work longer, either because they, are reluctant to retire and give up a stimulating career or because they are unable to afford it.

According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), a lobbying organization for senior citizens, 69 percent of employees over the age of 45 plan to continue working past age 65. The economic recession that began in 2001 reduced the value of many retirement accounts, prompting workers and retirees to re-evaluate their options and either delay retirement or consider working part-time when they do "retire." Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed by AARP also cited health insurance and prescription drug benefits as key reasons for remaining employed.

Whatever their motives for staying on the job, older workers generally will find that employers are receptive to keeping them, not only because of their skills and experience but because there are not enough younger workers to replace them if they retire. Declining birth rates that began in the mid-1960s are dramatically slowing the growth of the U.S. labor force, and this trend is expected to become more acute in the years ahead. For the economy to prosper, many older workers must be retained.

Recruiting and retaining older workers will require employers to revise their human resources policies and make some accommodations, because baby boomers are not immune to the physical effects of aging. Compared with adults under age 45, for example, people between 45 and 64 are more than twice as likely to be visually impaired to some extent and nearly five times more likely to experience some hearing loss.

TECHNOLOGY OFFERS SOLUTIONS

Fortunately, computer technology--much of it developed to assist people with disabilities--can help older workers remain productive despite age-related impairments and disabilities that might otherwise slow them down and make it harder for them to perform their job tasks. Examples of assistive technology include the following:

* Software that magnifies a computer screen and makes it easier to see text;

* Large track balls and other pointing devices that move a cursor without calling on fine motor skills;

* Voice recognition software that enables people with arthritis to speak more and type less; and

* Visual alerts that remind people who are deaf or hard of hearing of meetings and other appointments and notify them when e-mail arrives. …