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March 27, 2006
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 The H.R. Doctor Is In

Aging Whines and Aging Workers

By 2012, about one in five working adults in the United States will be 55 years of age or older. An aging working population is a factor of the "baby boomer" bubble reaching retirement age. It is also a factor of the economic reality that dreams of a viable retirement with enough income to live comfortably and enjoy life is not going to happen based upon reliance on Social Security.

A whole host of other factors - health care costs, socialization needs, inadequate savings, to name a few - will lead to an uptick in the number of seniors remaining in the workforce.

Like fine wines which improve with age, having experienced and educated workers with positive attitudes and good work habits offers far more to an employer than it risks.

Employers of an older workforce can have positive role models and mentors available for younger workers to emulate. The older worker will offer loyalty and attachment to the workforce that is not as well represented in many younger workers.

There are, of course, difficulties in the management of an older workforce. For one thing, the supervisor may be considerably younger than the subordinate. For some older workers, like any worker in fact, there may be a resistance to change or a fear of new technology. Agencies would be well served by creating training and awareness-building seminars for the supervisors of older workers to help dismiss myths and provide these supervisors with the added confidence and skills they will need. This is likely to be the leading "diversity" issue of the next couple of decades.

The matrix of laws around which HR professionals orbit, especially in a public agency, is confusing enough without an older workforce arriving with some unique challenges. Here are some logical or illogical extensions of a scenario which is only one part science fiction.

First, an employer is bound by the Age Discrimination and Employment Act to not base hiring decisions on age, except where age is a bona fide qualification for employment - in very rare circumstances for the older worker. Once employed, employment decisions such as promotions, raises, hours and working conditions are to be based on decisions which are non-discriminatory in terms of age.

The next part of the conundrum comes with the fact that older persons are more likely to have chronic or degenerative health problems such as those associated with cancer, coronary artery disease and diabetes. That means there is a risk for more absences for some of these workers, and health insurance catastrophic costs, (if they aren’t high enough already).

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based upon such serious conditions as those previously described, unless the employee is unable to perform essential functions of the job with or without accommodation.

Enter the Family and Medical Leave Act, which mandates up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for serious medical conditions.

Taken together, these scenarios can make HR professionals feel like castaways on Gilligan’s Island. They also reflect an increasing detachment from the reality that lies ahead as the constellation of demographics, economics and health care comes together.

Getting depressed? Do something about it without whining! Be a voice in the demand for a national health insurance consensus. See the HR Doctor’s past articles including "Hurricane of Another Sort" and "A Local Government Opportunity Buried in the Health Insurance Debate" for ideas about how this could emerge. Work in the local community to create ways for senior citizens to re-engage in local organizations to contribute some of their wisdom, rather than just "being served." Look inside your own local city, county, school board, etc. to ask whether policies of work schedule flexibility, phased retirement, part-time positions, "myth-busting" education for supervisors, and more, exists. If not, make it happen. Do this prior to your own Social Security eligibility!

Our country and each of us faces difficult times when we consider how our policies affect our older citizens. We will be judged by history not by the strength of our laser guided bombs and our zeal to drill for new oil supplies in national parks, but by the dignity and honor we bestow on the older generation. Time to start doing a better job of bestowing. After all there are really three - not two - inevitables in life: death, taxes and aging.

Live long and prosper!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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