Senior man sitting at desk with computer © Andersen Ross, Brand X Pictures, Getty Images

The later-life needs of older Americans are often expressed as quality-of-life goals: health and wellness, rich family and personal ties, and meaningful pursuits and travel, among others. To employers, however, older workers increasingly represent serious bottom-line expense and profitability issues.

These financial issues may translate seniors' lifestyle aspirations into some impersonal statistics. But in terms of changing workplace programs and perceptions, dollars and cents may also drive change more quickly and effectively than any set of "feel good" motivations.

Kristin Tugman is the senior director of health and productivity at Unum, the large Maine-based provider of disability insurance. Unum has seen rising trends of disability claims among older employees, coupled with ever-higher percentages of workplaces staffed with people past the age of 50. Nationally, roughly a third of all seniors ages 65 to 69 are still in the workforce.

Employees ages 55 to 65 "are the fastest-growing component of the workforce," Tugman says. "They represent significant skills and experiences," she adds. Employers don't want to lose this expertise and many are developing or expanding mentoring programs to help older employees transfer skills to younger colleagues.

Beyond mentoring, however, prospective labor-force shortages mean many employers simply cannot afford to let older workers retire or walk out the door. There are no trained replacements for them, young or old.

Particularly in manufacturing and physically challenging occupations such as nursing, Tugman says, employers "are recognizing the creep up in terms of their employees' average age" and the "clear impact of continuing repetitive, hard labor."

"Recent statistics suggest that the cost of disability is about 8% to 15% of payroll," she wrote in a research paper to be published later this year. "Due to the aging population these statistics could increase up to 37% over the next 10 years."

"In 1977, only 38 percent of the workforce was over the age of 40," the paper added. "By 2002 that percentage [had] increased to 56 percent." Between 1980 and 2020, the median age of all employees in the country is projected to rise from 34.6 years to 42.8 years.

To tackle these demographic and expense trends, Tugman advocates for employers to set up what she calls "productive aging" programs, a phrase she credits to her late colleague at Unum, Kenneth Mitchell.

"Many employers have the building blocks of a productive aging program," she notes. "They just haven't been able to connect the dots." Productive aging programs include at least five components:

  1. A rigorous demographic analysis of an employer's aging workforce today and projected into the future. This knowledge is an essential foundation for productive aging efforts.
  2. Employee wellness programs with specific older-employee components.
  3. Chronic condition management, perhaps with special emphasis on obesity. A third of all U.S. workers have at least one chronic health issue, and the percentage is higher among older employees. Already, Tugman notes, workers older than 50 miss an average of 11 days of work a year more than younger employees. "This obesity epidemic is a significant risk factor," she wrote in her paper. "Obesity prevalence stood at 28 to 34 percent of the population in 2000 and is expected to increase to more than 45 percent of the population within the next 20 years."
  4. Flexible work environment. The recent decision by Yahoo to end remote work has raised questions about the impact of telecommuting on corporate results. But flexibility for older employees is broadly seen as a needed employee-retention and job-enrichment benefit.
  5. Job enrichment programs. "Programs that value older workers and seek to leverage their motivation with respect to their return to work and their staying at work can be effective in this effort," Tugman wrote in her research paper. As an example, she referred to job transition programs that took physical pressure off older workers while allowing them to make greater contributions of their skills. "How do we use her brain instead of just her brawn?" she says.

The key to success with older employees, Tugman concludes, is to strengthen their sense of employer loyalty. Perhaps loyalty has grown weaker among younger employees. But for older workers, it remains huge. "We've got to understand what drives the older worker," she says, "and generally it's their sense of loyalty."

While Tugman sees lots of progress among employers toward productive aging, she notes how slow the progress has been, in large measure due to the financial pressures of the recession. Companies don't have much money for such programs today. "I can't think of an employer at this stage who has gotten all the way there," she says.

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