Clearing Up Myths About Older Workers While Understanding and Supporting an Aging WorkforcePosted on by
The National Center for Productive Aging and Work is a key part of the Total Worker Health® Program in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The center operates as a hub that conducts original research, fosters collaborations, and offers expert guidance to support an aging workforce. The center encourages workplaces to integrate workers of all ages, and it gives useful resources on age-related issues for businesses and industries.
Why It Matters
Trends in population aging1 are expected to profoundly affect the workforce for years to come.2
In 2001, only about 1 out of every 7 U.S. workers was 55 or older. By 2021, the number jumped to almost 1 out of every 4 workers (a 93% increase). That’s almost twice the proportion of older workers as before.3 Older workers are staying on the job longer for various reasons, ranging from financial needs to the joy of work. More people are working past the age when they might have retired. They might be responding to the increase in the Social Security full retirement age, needing money or health insurance, or simply enjoying their jobs and being around their friends at work.⁴
Companies often find that older workers bring a lot to the table: experience, know-how, reliability, work ethic, professionalism, and loyalty, among other good qualities.⁴,⁵ This can help the company run more efficiently and even save money.⁴ Hiring and keeping older workers could also lessen upcoming labor shortages expected to occur in certain industries in the coming years.
The last full week in September is designated as National Employ Older Workers Week. This week recognizes the contributions and value that older workers bring to the workforce. It serves as an especially good time to dispel any negative myths about older workers and consider how employers and workplaces can more effectively help them stay safer and healthier as they continue working.
Myths About Older Workers Don’t Match Reality
Misconceptions about older workers are common. Here are some common myths and the facts that dispel them:
- Myth: Older workers are often sick.
Reality: Older workers might have some health issues like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and muscle pain, but these rarely affect job performance.⁶ Safe work practices and workplace safety programs can help workers maintain their health by lessening their chance of being injured. Programs that focus on well-being at work can help all workers stay healthier.⁶,⁷ One bonus of a healthier workforce could be lower health insurance premiums for employers and employees alike.6
- Myth: Older workers can’t think as clearly as they used to.
Reality: As people age, their built-up knowledge, often called “crystallized intelligence,” usually improves.8 Employers value this because it often leads to better job performance. This kind of intelligence may become more important as jobs focus more on services and information. Complex work can also help older workers maintain their memory and brain function. A variety of tasks can offer similar benefits.⁹
- Myth: Older workers are not as safe at work.
Reality: Older workers usually follow safety rules and have fewer non-fatal injuries at work than younger workers.10 This could be because they understand the value of safety measures and are more likely to follow them. However, older workers are more likely to be killed on the job from serious work-related incidents. While these happen less often, preventative measures should always be followed.11
- Myth: Older workers are expensive to keep.
Reality: Although employing older workers can cost more in salary and benefits because of their experience and senior roles, the real impact on employers is small.4,5 Hiring and training new staff is expensive. Older workers are more likely to stay in their current jobs, helping employers save the time and money usually spent on recruiting and training. These savings can balance out the higher pay for some older workers.
- Myth: Older workers don’t like change.
Reality: Being open to change can help achieve work goals. Workers at all ages can resist change, but studies suggest older workers may be more open to change than young workers.12 Older workers often have more experience dealing with organizational shifts, making them better at adapting.13
- Myth: Older workers are less productive.
Reality: Productivity is different for everyone, regardless of age. For example, a worker’s age doesn’t affect their main job tasks.14 Older workers often help and cooperate with colleagues and supervisors more, which is known as organizational citizenship.15 They are also less likely to misuse company time and resources.16 Older workers often benefit from their years of experience and know-how, and they may have developed useful social networks within a company.5 They can often guide and mentor new employees, helping them to learn faster and preserve company knowledge.5,17 Both younger and older workers can benefit from one another’s skills.
Myths like these may make some employers think older workers have too many drawbacks. In fact, companies can make the most of an older workforce’s skills. Employers who want to keep talented older workers should think about the needs of both the worker and the workplace. For instance, they can offer flexible work schedules, match tasks to a worker’s abilities, and promote a safe and ergonomic environment.
Beyond the Myths: Applying Total Worker Health® to Older Workers
With these myths dispelled and the value of older workers reinforced, employers may wonder how they can best support their older workers. The Total Worker Health® concept encourages employers to consider steps such as these:18
Work Flexibility and Task Design
- Allow flexible work options. Give workers a say in choosing their work schedules, tasks, organization, and work locations when possible.
- Fit tasks to workers’ skills and abilities.
- Use self-paced tasks and breaks. Limit repetitive work.
Workplace Health and Safety
- Make the workspace ergonomic. This covers adjustable seating, proper lighting, and reducing screen glare.
- Reduce long periods of sitting. Offer sit/stand desks and walking workstations for those who usually sit. Urge workers to move and stretch during the day. Provide options for exercising onsite or suggest affordable community activities.
- Address hazards that are known to affect older workers, such as noise, slips and trips, and physical hazards. These hazards can be more severe for an older workforce.
Team Dynamics and Skill Development
- Form age-diverse teams. This adds a more complete set of skills and viewpoints and can challenge age-related stereotypes. Age-diverse teams may be able to identify age-associated problems and suggest workplace solutions.
- Invest in ongoing training for all ages. This enhances skill levels and helps workers adapt to new technology.
Five Ways to Engage Both Older and Younger Workers
It’s worth noting that common interests span across age groups, debunking yet another myth—that older and younger workers want different things. According to a report by AARP and Aon Hewitt, both older and younger workers value the same five qualities of a workplace:4
- They believe they can move up in their company and know what steps to take for career growth.
- Having a say. They can contribute by suggesting new ideas to make better products, processes, or solutions.
- Having pride in their company. They are proud to work for companies that are respected in the community and help people through charity or community programs.
- Knowing they can succeed. They believe they can reach their own career goals, no matter their age.
- Knowing how to succeed. Workers understand the skills they need and what they can do to excel in their jobs, and supervisors regularly talk with them about how they can improve.
What Employers Can Do Next
In closing, it’s crucial to dispel the myths that surround older workers and acknowledge the realities. From experience to adaptability, the aging workforce is a valuable reservoir of talent. To fully harness this potential, employers should use age-inclusive policies and programs. Consider today how you can create a work environment that not only welcomes but thrives on the skills and wisdom of all ages.
We want to hear from you about working with older employees. What’s worked well in your company to keep older workers safe, healthy, and happy? What challenges have you faced? If you’re an older worker, what do you wish companies would do better? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Gretchen A. Petery, PhD, MA, COHP, CHRM, is a NIOSH social scientist and co-manager the National Center for Productive Aging and Work.
James W. Grosch, PhD, MBA, is a NIOSH senior research psychologist and co-manager the National Center for Productive Aging and Work.
L. Casey Chosewood, MD, MPH, directs NIOSH’s Total Worker Health® program.
Total Worker Health® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Vespa J, Medina L, Armstrong DM . Demographic turning points for the United States: population projections for 2020 to 2060. Current Population Reports. Washington, DC: S. Census Bureau, published 2018, revised 2020. 15 pages, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2020/demo/p25-1144.pdf.
- Dubina KS, Kim J-L, Colato J, Rieley MJ . Projections overview and highlights, 2021–2031. Monthly Labor Review, Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://doi.org/10.21916/mlr.2022.28.
- S. Bureau of Labor Statistics . Civilian labor force by age, sex, race, and ethnicity, 2001, 2011, 2021, and projected 2031. Data set, https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/civilian-labor-force-summary.htm.
- AARP . A business case for workers age 50+: A look at the value of experience. Washington, DC: AARP Research, April 15, 2015, https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00100.001.
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