(This post originally appeared on Philly.com)
Baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — are rapidly reaching retirement age. But not as many of them are retiring.
According to research last year from the financial services industry’s Insured Retirement Institute, 45 percent of people in that category are working longer mainly because they have zero savings for their golden years. Of the boomers that have retirement savings, the study found that more than half have saved less than $250,000.
“Approximately 10,000 baby boomers a day will reach retirement age between 2011 and 2029, but only about 5,900 a day are retiring,” says Susan Weinstock, a vice president at the American Association of Retired Persons. “In 2020, 26 percent of the U.S. workforce will be 55 years old and older, compared to only 14 percent in 2002. Nearly 9 million Americans aged 65 and older were still employed in 2016, up 60% from a decade earlier.”
The lack of savings isn’t the only reason why the number of older workers is dramatically increasing. Improved health care, nutrition and fitness — and a desire to just keep going — are also contributing factors to longer worker lives.
“Many work because they need the money, to save more for retirement, to be able to qualify for Social Security or to become eligible for a pension or 401(k) plan,” says Weinstock. “But almost the same number of people say that they are continuing to work because they enjoy the job or enjoy working, the job makes them feel useful, it gives them something to do, or it provides the opportunity to interact with other people.”
In our current low unemployment environment, the increasing number of older employees available brings both opportunities and challenges for small businesses.
We know that filling new jobs and replacing workers that leave for better offers is expensive and disruptive, and it’s particularly painful for smaller companies. More importantly, retiring employees can often take with them the knowledge about your company and their jobs that they’ve accumulated over many years.
“Older workers bring a level of expertise, tenure, and proven skills that are valuable to smart companies,” says Elliott Eiseman, president and cofounder of Express Employment Professionals, a staffing provider in Bala Cynwyd. “That, combined with the labor force not meeting demand due to the very, very low unemployment rate makes senior and all great candidates valuable.”
Keeping an older employee around can also provide another important benefit to your company: experience. Eiseman says that many of his clients like to leverage the wisdom of their older employees by creating mentor programs. “When you have tenured people, you have the ability to have a mentor program, more experienced people who can formally or informally mentor people,” he says. “Senior workers makes for a stronger, diverse workforce, and anything that more diverse and stronger makes companies stronger.”
So when an older employee wants to stay on the job — regardless of the reason — the benefits can be substantial for a small business. But older workers are also … well … old. Many may not be able to keep up with the physical demands of some jobs like a younger person. Others want to wind down their hours and spend more time with their families or at leisure activities. Older people are more prone to potential workplace injuries too. All of these factors can create more challenges — and costs — for small business owners.
So how to best take advantage of this changing demographic?
For starters, many smart business owners are realizing the need to adjust their company’s benefits to address the needs of both younger and older workers. “The work-life balance is a big thing for everybody now,” says Eiseman. “Benefits for a young person might be maternity leave, benefits for a senior might be significant-other care leave, but it’s leave.”
If available, your older workers should also be encouraged to take advantage of any preventative care and diagnostic testing available in their health care plans and of new retirement plan rules that went into effect this year that allows them to keep contributing to their 401(K) plans up to the age of 72.
Next, don’t underestimate your older workers’ ability to change and learn. “Do not assume that older workers won’t be interested in things younger workers care about, or that they can’t learn a new technology system,” says Kara Peiffer, a human resources consultant based in Berwyn. “Actively seek opportunities to bring them in on new projects and get creative on areas where their strengths can be of service.” Peiffer says that, like younger employees, older workers will also need training to master some tasks. “Be patient and allow them time to learn before deciding if they are capable to perform a task.”
Peiffer also says that it may be necessary for a company to have different forms of communications with their employees depending on their age. “Have conversations about their preferred method of communication,” she advises. “While younger employees may prefer to communicate via text or email, especially when working from home, offer to meet via phone or in-person when necessary to accommodate an employee who prefers a more direct communication style.”
Finally, workplace safety needs to be addressed. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says that — believe it or not — older workers actually tend to experience fewer workplace injuries than younger colleagues (experience and wisdom do count!). But when accidents involving older workers do occur, those workers often require more time to heal and the incidents, unfortunately, are more likely to be fatal. The organization recommends employers tailor their tasks to use self-paced work with self-directed rest breaks, avoid prolonged, sedentary work, beware of physical hazards that challenge an older worker and provide and design a more “ergo-friendly work environment” that may include workstations, tools, floor surfaces, adjustable seating, better illumination where needed, and screens and surfaces with less glare.
Regardless of their financial situation, many older employees want to keep working. Because, as astronomer Stephen Hawking once said, “Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.” If you do have older employees who want to keep working, why not encourage them? Sure, there are challenges. But the benefits of having them around can be significant.