The global workforce is rapidly aging, requiring both companies and employees to change what work looks like, according to a new book.
“We are witnessing the collision of two megatrends: declining birth rates and increased longevity,” Bradley Schurman, a demographic futurist and the author of the new book, “The Super Age,” told Yahoo Money.
Among people aged 75 years and older, the U.S. labor force is expected to grow by 96.5% over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the labor force of 16- to 24-year-olds is projected to shrink by 7.5% from 2020 to 2030. For those in between, it’s steady as she goes.
This demographic shift is global, too. By 2050, one in six people worldwide will be over 65 years old, up from one in 11 in 2019. In the U.S., five states have already hit the mark with one in five people over 65–Delaware, Florida, Maine, Vermont and West Virginia.
“The impact on the workplace is significant, and the added pressure of a mass exodus of older workers due to forced redundancy or retirement has really put employers on their heels,” Schurman said. “We all need to think about work in a different way.”
Schurman offered more insights and advice in a conversation with Yahoo Money. Here are the highlights of that conversation:
Kerry Hannon: You call this a golden age for workers. What’s your thinking behind that?
Bradley Schurman: The fact is because fewer people are born each year, it means that our workforce is going to start to shrink, and we need workers to make products, to provide services, and pay taxes.
So, as we enter this period of the Super Age, with more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 18, this is going to create market conditions that are going to increase the demand for workers of all ages, because the supply is so low. Workers will be able to negotiate for greater benefits and for greater salaries.
What does that mean for employers in terms of adapting their hiring practices?
As an employer, if you aren’t taking a hard look right now at your hiring practices, you’ve lost the game. You have to focus on a new business case for this modern era. You have to compete for new talent, and that’s through salaries and benefits that support employees with caregiving leave and flexibility; this is something that every worker loves. Augment the current workforce with automation and artificial intelligence. And employers have to figure out how to extend the working lives of virtually everyone they employ.
How do you recommend they extend working lives?
One way is through ergonomics, making the workplace more accessible through design. Education is the other big one. You have to think of workers as assets. For so long, we’ve looked at workers as relatively disposable, get what you want out of ’em, then throw them away.
Now they’re an asset that holds a great amount of value and you want to keep them for as long as possible. But you only do that if the workplace is inclusive, it’s welcoming and you keep these assets fully tuned to the era that they’re in.
You are a big booster for multi-generational workforces. How does an employer make that successful?
We’ve dealt with diversity issues before in the workplace to varying degrees. We’ve worked to integrate our workforces racially. Women have come into the workforce en masse. LGBTQ workers are now flourishing in the workplace.
These are diverse perspectives that strengthen businesses. Age diversity, generational diversity, can strengthen business, too.
An age diverse workplace contributes to building better services at the end of the day. It translates to better products and services built for the larger society. Meantime, people at older ages are more engaged in income-producing work, contributing as consumers and paying more taxes. That keeps the economy healthy.
One of the biggest challenges, though, and one that workplaces really need to overcome are issues around communication. Because time and time again, we talk differently depending on where we sit in the world.
People who grew up in an analog world, boomers, in particular, tend to like to have face-to-face conversations.They enjoy picking up the telephone. They tend to have issues with platforms like Slack. These are generalizations. But younger populations love digital technologies. And that’s where they like to communicate. They like to text. They like to be on Slack. They like to do quick bites of information here and there.
So, employers need to get the most out of this generationally diverse workforce by figuring out how to make them communicate better. And a lot of times that’s agreeing to a central platform, typically technology driven. So, you can keep track of these conversations that everyone can use. You need to invest to make sure that people who didn’t grow up with these technologies can grow into them. That’s the big line to get across.
What’s the biggest change in the workplace that must happen from your research?
We must retire retirement. We have to encourage people to stay in the workforce longer. The reality is that roughly one-fifth of Americans have less than $5,000 in retirement savings. There are way too many people living paycheck to paycheck. That’s grim.
Government has a role in this. Obviously during any period of transition, the government can help businesses understand the value of an historically marginalized population. For example, they can offer credit as they do in the U.K. for age diversity in the workplace. If you want to contract to do business with the U.K. government, a company has to be able to show age diversity in their workforce, just like you have to show racial and gender diversity.
But this idea of creating legislation around age discrimination is not really the answer to keeping older workers on the job. It’s hard to prove. In the United States, it’s people over the age of 40, which is kind of crazy.
Younger people exhibit similar levels of age discrimination in the workplace that older people do. But in the U.S., we have focused on the negative aspects of older age discrimination while ignoring the realities of younger age discrimination.
So, if we’re building a better equitable future, we have to think about things a bit more holistically because the generations are coming up in terms of even numbers now. That’s a new reality for a lot of employers.
What were the biggest takeaways for older workers?
For employees, get out of the mindset that seniority brings you anything at all. I hate to boil it down to such a simple point, but the reality is life is a marathon. It has never been a sprint.
You’re going to have periods in your career where you’re going to encounter some hiccups or some heartache. You’re going to have an employer let you go. You’re going to walk away from a job. And most likely, because ageism is such a prevalent bias, you’re going to encounter somebody who is going to base their decisions on you because of your age.
You can’t rest on your laurels. Above and beyond anything, stay educated, stay up-to-date and relevant, stay connected and active, stay focused on your career. Stay focused on creating a quality work product at every single turn. That’s how you stay ahead. It’s not perfect. Ageism will pop up from time to time, but ageism is a lot less likely to rear its ugly head if you’re fighting against it.
Kerry is a Senior Columnist at Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon