Our Workforce Is Aging: Should Companies Care? the Older We Get, the More Health-Related Problems We Suffer-Right? So It Follows That Workplaces Need to Beef Up Their Health Management. Are Kiwi Employers Prepared? and Do Older Workers Really Represent a Health Problem?

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The greying of the workforce is a rapidly advancing fact of life and, while many organisations acknowledge this and its potential challenges, not all have strategies to deal with it.

The changing workforce demographic results not only from the babyboomer bulge breaching its seventh decade, but the reluctance of some of its cohort to exit the workforce. And, given the current skills squeeze, it's just as well. That squeeze has encouraged some employers to be more imaginative in constructing incentive packages for recruitment and retaining employees, but are employers en masse wooing the aging baby-boomers with promises of perks to help keep them fit and healthy? The answer is 'not yet'.

Southern Cross Corporate Solutions COO Peter Tynan confirms that the composition of the workforce is showing dramatic change. Unemployment statistics for the June 2006 quarter show the lowest rate of unemployment is in the 55-59 year age group at under one percent (the next lowest was 50-54 years with 1.6 percent--down from 2.2 percent for the same period in the previous year). The highest rate is in the under-19 age group with 14 percent unemployed.

By around 2020 growth in the labour force is expected to be negative, and by mid-century one in four New Zealanders will be aged 65 or older, compared with one in eight today. A fall in the labour force has the potential to reduce the rate of economic growth, so politicians and planners will be keen to avoid the dilemma confronting the Australian government: early retirement.

According to Queensland University of Technology researcher Megan Tones, Australians can't wait to leave the workforce once they hit 50 causing a looming labour shortage and the dashing of government hopes that people will work into their 70s.

"[The issue is] not just the labour shortage and cost of paying pensions to people for 30 years or more, it is also the fact that people who are engaged in enjoyable work have fewer physical and mental health problems thus reducing health spending," said Tones.

And not only does being in work mean fewer health problems for the over 50s but older workers can be more productive than their under 35-year-old colleagues because they actually have fewer health and lifestyle problems. According to research conducted by Australian Health Management, workers over 55 are more productive than under-35s because they suffer less depression and headaches and have no childcare problems. This contradicts a common perception that older workers suffer more health-related problems than other age groups.

A survey of public service departments in New Zealand as recently as late 2003 revealed that 30 percent of respondents believed that "health problems" were a disadvantage of an older workforce, and that topped the list of perceived downsides.

But HR specialists and those managing health and safety risks in the workplace report that the growing popularity of health and wellness employment incentives is just part of a trend towards flexibility and a more holistic approach to employment packages rather than a specific response to the demographic shift.

Ian Taylor, Sheffield director and partner, says that in the end of the market they operate in--executive recruitment--the issue is talent, not age. "But it's fair to say that in a talent-short market, the skills and experience of an older executive are more appreciated.

"There are many elements to incentive packages including healthcare and gym memberships. The complexity of incentives is far greater now than previously."

Sheffield has done a lot of work in the area of incentives in remuneration packages. Taylor advises that with most organisations what is offered is a matter of company policy and that most workers in the corporate sector have access to healthcare packages.

"In our experience there is not a definable trend [towards packages designed to attract older executives with health benefits]. …