Like it or not, plan for it or ignore it, the workforce is aging. This is due to many factors - from the population in North America getting older (a la Baby Boom of post World War II) to people staying in the workforce longer for financial or social reasons - or because their skills are too valuable to lose from an already thinned-down workforce. Strategic leaders see the positive and negative sides of this trend and find ways to accentuate the advantages an older workforce brings while diminishing the downsides.

The Advantages of an Older Workforce

Despite rising concerns, the advantages of an older workforce are many. These workers:

  • are more experienced and often well-understand job and Safety expectations and requirements

  • have "survived", successfully found ways to do their jobs that work for them

  • have a healthy skepticism about superficial or pressuring calls for instant improvements

  • understand they are not the center of the universe and tend, in general, to be more realistic than their younger peers about organizational needs for productivity, profitability, and compliance with regulating agencies

  • are generally receptive to practical methods for working smarter (as long as it can be proven to them they can function more effectively and safely with less effort)

  • most important to Safety leaders, realize they are no longer "ten feet tall and bullet-proof" and are therefore more highly motivated by Safety and Health than their younger co-workers.

  • have fewer numbers/incidence of injuries, likely for the reasons mentioned above.

Some Challenges with an Aging Workforce

Of course, aging workforces present challenges as well. Some of these include:

  • in many companies, reductions in force have resulted in older employees working harder in their fifties than they did in the twenties - not an ideally-designed scenario

  • more years of exposures from working and living can result in greater amounts of cumulative trauma. Not surprisingly, soft tissue injuries - of the back, neck, knees, arms, shoulders - tend to be more prevalent and costly among older workers

  • negative perceptions of older workers - among their managers, younger peers and even within themselves - might lead to self-fulfilling prophecies of expecting to be injured (which might be an excuse for not taking needed preventative measures that may include increased vigilance, lifestyle adjustment, etc).

  • skepticism that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks", which again, if believed, reduces the likelihood older workers would try to learn new and needed Safety (and other) skills

  • higher severity rate (perhaps due to increased healing time) when they are injured.

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