Panel: Supporting aging workforce benefits employers, employees
Good news for senior living communities and their residents: Supporting those who work or volunteer after the traditional retirement age can be beneficial to the health of individual employers, older adults and society in general, according to panelists speaking about the aging workforce at a Feb. 11 forum organized by Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. And opportunities to offer that support are becoming easier to find.
“We used to think that people would retire at 65 or 62, and now we're looking at three more decades of life expectancy,” Lisa Berkman, Ph.D., a professor of public health and epidemiology at the school and director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, told those attending the online and in-person event.
Many people want to — or have to — work in their later years, said Debra Whitman, chief public policy officer for the AARP. The good news for employers, she added, is that older workers tend to be more loyal and engaged at their jobs than are younger workers. The good news for society, she added, is that older adults who are working contribute tax revenue to the government and are less likely to need to rely on public programs for assistance. Older workers also can be valuable as workplace mentors, she added.
And work doesn't have to come with a paycheck to have benefits, the speakers said.
Christina Matz-Costa, Ph.D., a senior research associate at the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, said that research has shown that seniors' continued engagement through working or volunteering improves their functional and cognitive well-being as well as their quality of life, and it can mitigate the effects of age-related loss, such as the death of a spouse. But those who benefit the most, she added, feel a connection to the work, paid or unpaid; they don't think of it just as activity that keeps them busy.
Francine Grodstein, Sc.D., a professor of medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said that undertaking healthful habits can enable people to remain active as they age. “It's never too early to start, and it's never too late to start,” she said.
Steps such as exercise — “even a brisk walk” and a diet that includes fish and lots of fruits and vegetables while minimizing red meat intake, will help memory and other body systems, Grodstein said. “One of the most key predictors of overall healthy aging is weight,” she added, noting that those who avoid obesity are 80% more likely to be healthy as they age.
Grodstein encouraged employers to make staircases a more enticing choice for workers to move around the workplace and to take other actions that make it easier for workers to incorporate healthy activities into their lives.
The government and employers must address the age-related discrimination and disparities that still exist in the workplace, the panelists said, and they also must find ways to encourage smart saving for retirement among employees so that those who continue to work into the traditional retirement years do so because they want to, not because they have to.