As the baby boom generation ages, the U.S. work force will comprise a growing percentage of workers over age 50. By the year 2015, specifically, there will be 55 million workers 45 years of age or older.1 This equates to approximately 40 percent of the total workforce. The once abundant supply of workers in the labor market - created in the early '60s as a result of the emergence of women in the workplace and the employment of the young baby boomers - is growing increasingly inadequate for today's business needs. According to the U.S. Bureau of labor statistics, since 1996, the number of people on the job or available for hire has increased at the low rate of 1.1 percent a year. This pace is expected to continue until 2006, giving way to the tightest labor market in 40 years. Moreover, the number of workers 55 or older will increase by almost 50 percent between 1998 and 2008, while those between 25 and 54 will increase by only 5.5 percent.2

As nearly half of all workers will be considered 'aging' by 2015, companies will be faced with a new host of challenges related to an aging workforce. Older employees, more prone to certain chronic diseases associated with age and diminished physical capacity will have job requirements that differ from those of younger or middle-aged workers.

To ensure that businesses capitalize on the aging workforce, it will be essential to keep workers healthy and productive -- throughout the entire aging process. The ergonomist working with the older population must be an expert not only in the accommodation and design of the biomechanical interaction of the worker and task, but also become an expert in the impact of these conditions on the workers' ability to avoid injury and occupational illness.

A Snapshot of the Current and Future Working Population

There are arrays of factors that are spurring a dramatic shift in age distribution within the American work force. First of all, Americans are living longer. Men born in 1950 could expect to live 66 years on average and women 71 years. By 1990, life expectancy had risen to 72 years for men and 79 years for women.3 This has a profound implication on the labor market: as employees live longer, the years at work are likely to extend. As workers stay in the workforce longer, employers will need to examine solutions to keep them healthy and injury-free.

Furthermore, the enormous 'baby boom' of 1946 to 1964 was followed by a dramatic, sustained decline in birth rates. The 75 million baby boomers are now well into middle age (between the ages of 37 and 55), effectively dwarfing the pool of younger adults available in the labor market. Individuals in the 20- to 29-year-old age bracket comprised 23 percent of the population in 1990, but only 18 percent in 2000.

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