Did you know that the first baby boomers began turning 65 in 2011? This so-called Silver Tsunami refers to older employees who are postponing or declining retirement, or even coming out of retirement. While mature employees obviously have years of experience under their collective belts, and can continue to contribute to the workforce for many years, aging workers do have different needs.
The difference in life expectancy between 1900 (44 years) and today (78.8 years) is dramatic, and it directly affects the demographics of the workforce. At the same time, a drop in birth rates in the US means that the older workforce is growing more quickly than any other group. What does that mean for the workplace?
A variety of cognitive and physical skills can be affected as we age; this can contribute to reduced productivity. Companies should take these (and other) ergonomics facts into consideration when creating workspaces for more mature workers:
- As we age, we need brighter light to see adequately. Task lighting in the workplace should adjust to each worker’s preference.
- Tactile sensation and hand sensitivity decrease with age, which can affect sensory and motor control, which could lead to quality errors.
- Strength decreases as we age, reducing as much as 30 – 50% between ages 30 and 80.
- Older adults prefer accuracy over speed. Movement control declines, which can make mature workers slower in tasks that involve grasping, reaching, and continuous movement. This could contribute to productivity loss over time; however, with sufficient ergonomic design, older workers can usually work at about the same pace as younger workers.
- Hearing generally decreases as we age. It can be especially difficult for older individuals to discern sounds in noisy, echoing environments.
The best strategy is to purchase and use age-neutral designs. For the most part, an age-neutral design lends itself to adjustability. Many age-neutral items are common in an office setting—chairs that adjust up and down to accommodate tall and short people. Adjustable height sit-to-stand desks are another age-neutral, ergonomically friendly design. In general, if an item is suitable for older people, then it will also be suitable for someone younger.
However, it’s a good idea to take a bigger picture look at the overall ergonomics in the workplace. For example, younger workers may be more comfortable using a ladder than older employees, so why not try to redesign the work to eliminate the need for a ladder? This kind of thinking can help all employees work smarter.