It is generally accepted that the modal age of workers in the U.S. petroleum industry is increasing. This trend is not likely to change in the near future owing to recent changes in the age of eligibility for Social Security and in pension funds that raise the minimum age for retirement benefits. Moreover, older adults are healthier now and are not ready to leave the workforce.
According to the Bureau of Labor statistics (McMahan, 2002), between 1998 and 2008, the number of civilian workers age 55 and over will increase by 49.9%, while the number of 25- to 54-year-old workers will increase by only 5.5% and the number of workers between ages 16 and 24 will decrease by 2.8%. In the year 2000, almost 11% of the workforce was over the age of 55. Projections show (Wright, 2004) that by 2030, over 20% of the general workforce will be 55 years or older and roughly 12% of the population will be 65 years or older.
It is generally agreed that as we age, we are not able to perform to the same level as when we were younger. Moreover, we do not recover as quickly from injuries as when we were young. And we suffer more from debilitating health problems, e.g., arthritis and lower back pain, than the young. Each of these can contribute to the relative loss of performance as compared to when we were younger. The relative loss of performance among older workers depends on many factors such as general health, physical conditioning and the type of work that we are conducting. Moreover, performance losses with age vary with the individual. And, like most biological characteristics, the variation is stochastic, i.e. some 55-year-olds are as strong as an average 40-year-old, while others have the strength of an average 70 year old. So, it is difficult to state that age-related performance decreases start at 40, 50 or 60 years old. In general, however, research has shown that specific performance decreases have a mean age of onset and an age variation associated with them.
This paper describes the physical, physiological and psychological changes that take place as men and women age. Using examples and demonstrations taken from the petroleum workplace, we look at how performance might be affected by age and how equipment, facilities and work processes can be improved to account for the limitations of the aging worker and to take advantage of their capabilities. We will look at three categories of performance: physical capabilities, sensory capabilities and mental capabilities.