Academic journal article Generations

Adaptations to an Aging Workforce: Innovative Responses by the Corporate Sector

Academic journal article Generations

Adaptations to an Aging Workforce: Innovative Responses by the Corporate Sector

Article excerpt

Farsighted businesses have been responding to an aging workforce since the late 1990s. As baby boomers enter their 50s and 60s, many organizations have found that they needed to reexamine the old laborforce model whereby older workers were continually replaced with a larger number of younger and better educated workers. Some enterprises have developed adaptive practices to deal with the new workforce realities. Others are trying to make the business case for change.


Employers' responses to older employees in their companies vary considerably because of different perceptions about the business impact of an aging workforce.

The concept of the "continuum of pain" developed by Mary Young (2004) helps explain the range of views regarding whether older employees and their approaching retirement is a business issue to be dealt with. At the low end of this continuum, the pain is small and localized: "Who will replace Old Joe?" At the high end, aging and retiring workers are viewed not as a company-specific problem but as a national crisis. In between these two extremes is a range of pain levels. Is an aging workforce an issue in some job categories, in some business units, companywide, or throughout the industry (Young, 2004)?

Research by the Conference Board and other organizations indicates diat thus far few companies are feeling a high level of pain because of the aging workforce (Morton, Foster, and Sedlar, 2005). Companies that have identified specific vulnerabilities in relation to a maturing workforce usually focus selectively on those critical areas rather than on the entire enterprise. For example, a business may respond to an impending shortage of scientists in the research and development function yet ignore older workers in the manufacturing facilities because they see no business problems there, such as many impending retirements or the risk of lost knowledge, that will occur in the short term.

Finally, some companies realize that their own aging workforce requires planning and adaptations, but they may not be convinced diat enough hard data exist to justify new resource allocations.


Companies engaged in strategic workforce planning or human-resource professionals tracking demographic change often ask, What makes an ideal workplace for older workers? While there is no agreement on a single set of characteristics, conjecture gradually has been replaced by solid research, which identifies several critical factors.

Age-neutral culture. A number of fields have seen changes in corporate policies, new business practices, and innovative programs designed to be older-worker-friendly fall short of their anticipated impact. After much scratching of heads, numerous studies by consultants, and monetary investments for state-of-the-art programs, experts began to chant a common mantra: "h?s the culture, stupid!" The conventional wisdom now is that innovations in corporate policies, practices, and programs are doomed to fall short if the organization's culture implicitíy conveys a contradictory message-for example, that if workers participate in new programs offering flexible schedules, the managers won't like it, or the employees will be seen as not serious about their careers.

Indeed, organizational culture plays a crucial role in changing any behavior in the workplace-as it certainly will in changing the world of work for older workers. The United States harbors deep-seated cultural biases about aging that contribute to the exclusion of many older workers from optimal participation in the labor force. (See Dennis, this issue.) Unless age- based stereotypes are confronted and dispelled, innovative initiatives to recruit older workers or to meet their career and workplace needs will not be effective.

IBM is one company that understands this reality and is proactively tackling the "culture thing. …

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