America's workforce is changing and older Americans are becoming the norm in the workplace. By the year 2010 the 45-years and older age group will be the largest cohort in the workplace (BLS, 2002). While Americans are living longer, and working longer, they are living healthier lives (NIOSH, 2004). The baby boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) is 77.5 million strong and the first official year of retirement is 2011. Most employers focus on easing older workers out the door as they near retirement age. However, 79% of boomers plan to work during their retirement years. (AARP, 2003). Employers would do well to think about retaining, not replacing baby-boomers. Smart companies know that they cannot fill jobs with the numbers available. When baby boomers begin to retire, the generation that follows will not have enough numbers to replace them as their population decreased by approximately 6 million people (AARP, 2003).
If corporations worked to support the older workers continued employment they could create a win-win for the worker and the company. Older workers exhibit traits such as experience, loyalty, attention to task, perseverance, work habits, and emotional maturity. (Novelli, 2003). They are usually mentors in the workplace and have a historical perspective that includes working smarter. Older workers use past experience to incorporate time saving steps in tasks as well as alternative ways to perform a task. A key issue in retaining older employees is in providing effective training to keep them working safely and injury free. This is the function of the health and safety professional.
The role of the health and safety professional is instrumental in bridging the gap between the older worker and their ability to work without injury. According to Schetagne (2001), one way to retain older workers is to improve the environment in which they work. A less physically and psychologically demanding environment might keep older workers on the job longer. Having a more ergonomically correct work environment throughout their careers, combined with more flexible schedules for those who want them, would likely have a more positive effect on retaining older workers than a simple change to the official age of retirement. (Schetagne, 2001)
Safety professionals have strong roots in understanding ergonomic issues and performing work in a safe manner. This is part of their undergraduate curriculum. Curriculum is lacking that addresses adult characteristics such as physical, psychosocial, and cognitive issues related to aging. Safety professionals are not taught about these characteristics, which affect adult performance and learning. Yet the workplace is an appropriate setting for application of adult learning principles. Although age ranges vary, all workers are adults who come with experience, values, and expectations. Workplace training that occurs without utilizing adult learning principles fails the learner and the corporation.