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National Association of Counties • Washington, D.C.      Vol. 34, No. 5 • March 11 , 2002

The H.R. Doctor Is In

The Senior-Focused America

The number one social issue of the next decade will be America’s adjustment to an aging society. The ever-young HR Doctor predicts this issue will increase in volume and complexity on the national scene, eclipsing and intertwining with issues of race, gender and relations between people of different religious affiliations, education, and the environment.

Within the issue of aging demographics can be found all of these other social and economic forces shaping our future. The great HR Director Hawkeye Pierce was asked by a MASH colleague to name his favorite book. Hawkeye replied that it was the dictionary. Why? Because it had all of the other books inside it! The same can be said of what will be our increasing focus on aging.

This is certainly a subject for employment and workforce planning, but it also goes much farther and deeper in our social fabric. It will relate to technology and science, community planning, law enforcement, recreation, social services and, yes, of course—health care. In short, it will be a pervasive and defining subject for every public administrator in every public agency!

As with most other matters in a civil society, it will be local government, not the feds, which must create the engagement opportunities with local private industry to make the biggest difference. The federal government will certainly play a great— and certainly, the loudest—role in the determination of our future in a world that will look more and more like many a quiet Florida neighborhood.

The federal government will have the ability, the pulpit, and the financial incentive power to present and help shape the issues. However, when all is said and done, local governments, and especially counties, will innovate and implement.

Get ready for what is coming, colleagues! Don’t wait to be run over by a crowd of active and not so active senior citizens! First some statements to help demonstrate the scope of the emerging issue.

The number of persons over 65 in the country increased by a factor of 11 during the 20th century. One in eight Americans is over age 65 today. That will change to one in five when the beautiful HR daughters retire!

Within a decade a huge exodus from public service will occur as the careers of the “baby boomers” (sorry, I tried not to use that phrase!) wind down. In my parents’ World War II era, two people collected Social Security benefits for every one hundred contributing to the system. By 1999, the ratio of recipients to contributors changed to thirty for every one hundred. A projected fifty-four for every hundred will receive benefits when my HR grandchildren are at their career peaks!

Within the workplace, we already find the “Four Generation Workforce,” described by the HR Doctor in a previous article (visit This is the time for agencies to do workforce planning and begin the Human Resources adjustments to benefits, employee orientation, retirement systems, and health care to anticipate these changes. Assess the recruitment and retention needs facing the organization and apply the neglected concepts of succession planning and mentoring to ensure that the departure of seasoned leaders can be celebrated, not mourned.

Consider workplace policies that permit “phased retirements,” such as a shift to three days of work per week with a prorated pension benefit. In effect, a “part-time pension.”

Understand that the concept of retirement itself is changing. People of a variety of ages are now qualifying for pensions but have no intention of not working. People are leaving careers and launching another based on long-held passions for particular subjects or endeavors. Others will find that they will continue to work into their 80s, perhaps as much out of economic necessity as out of the need for socialization – the need to stay “connected.”

The workplace — including the local government workplace — of the next decade will be “virtual” as much as made of brick and mortar. Employees will demand and will receive much greater schedule flexibility, including part-time, telecommuting and “distance” work.

Senior citizens — and others for that matter — will be increasingly technologically enabled. They will demand public agencies deliver services at the client’s convenience, not just at the organization’s convenience.

The HR Doctor sees a public service world ahead in which the sign reading “…for your convenience, our office hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.…” will be a exhibition in the Museum of Public Service Relics (I wonder if there is a federal grant available for such a museum?).

There is little reason why a citizen of any age, but especially of an advanced age where physical mobility may be generally more challenged, should not be able to renew auto tags, reserve a park picnic site, select a “meals on wheels” lunch, pay a parking ticket, etc. at 2 a.m. from their living room! There is less and less reason why the business office providing many of these services cannot be outsourced to an agency employee telecommuting from home, or to a private organization somewhere far away from the client’s home city or county for that matter.

This kind of workplace and workforce transformation is very much a part of how our society will need to respond to what lies ahead in public service.

Science will enable the disabled, extend life spans, and improve life options. These realities will cost the society and each citizen more money, change the way we spend our time and add to our inventory of risks and opportunities.

Every public service needs to develop strategic plan components focusing on how the services will migrate to a more senior-focused basis. There is simply no choice but to either plan for these demographic realities or react to them. Government serves best when it plans ahead and prepares strategically. Unfortunately, many services simply lurch forward, focusing on nothing more strategic than the next meeting of the governing body or the individual’s date of vesting in the retirement system.

Finally, those few and brave readers of the HR Doctor articles will recall a recently published articles called “Buenos Dias, Y’all” discussing adjustments needed in a multi-language society. Public service ahead will be paying attention to senõrs as well as seniors. There is simply no choice if the civil society we prize is to remain civil.

The senior-focused nation cannot be served well by “lurching administrators.” This new chapter in our nation’s evolution will be successfully written by nimble and flexible administrators who thoughtfully prepare public service changes in advance, listen to the trends as well as the current voices in the community and become champions of making local government better tomorrow than it was yesterday.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •