There is an interaction between demographics and culture, economics and technology. All four play a role in the repetitive cycle of change. At present a major demographic shift is occurring in the United States where the fastest growing population is that of older Americans. Advances in public health enable people to live longer and work longer. Many older Americans want to work, not only for money, but to maintain purpose. This fact has not escaped the notice of the United States Senate which created a bi-partisan Special Committee on Aging, chaired by Senator Robert P. Casey (R-ME). Very recently the committee published a report that contained information counselors should contemplate. Below are some of the findings.
First, the number of older workers is increasing at a faster pace than the rate of increase of the entire workforce. By 2025 older workers will account for one quarter of the entire labor force. Second, this group of workers will be diverse. Some will transition from full to part time work with their same or new employers. Others will become self-employed. Third, and quoted directly from the report, work is linked with improved health and well-being. For many aging Americans, work provides a sense of purpose. In addition to financial security work is linked to physical, emotional, and cognitive health thus enhancing quality of life. Therefore, in making public its report, the intent of the Senate Aging Committee is to support the needs of aging workers and help them and their families achieve the personal and professional goals they set for themselves.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology houses an Age-Lab that collaborates with business and government in order understand the impact and opportunity offered by an aging workforce. One of its objectives is to leverage technological and market innovation into public policy change, ensuring that technology’s promise is affordable and available all people regardless of income, education, or ability. The goal is to use technology to improve people’s lives. This technology will be innovative, ranging from robotic and/or prosthetic assists, to artificial intelligence and enhanced communication devices. All of this sounds complex, but advanced technology institutes are equal to the task of helping older people remain viable in the workplace. They are creating the devices that will enable older people to do things that they could not otherwise do and, by so doing, drive the economics that will cause cultural change.
Real cultural change, however, comes more slowly than technological advances. It requires a social climate change. Even though older workers bring skill, stability, and a sound work ethic, there are many challenges to be faced. While it is true that some corporations recognize and give lip service to the trend of an ageing workforce, not so many are taking positive action. Although an increasing number of employers are allowing people to work past age 65, few are introducing processes that allow people to transition from full to part time work. Fewer are making provision for “leave time” for those who must work to support their families while at the same time are care takers for even older parents or for sick or dying spouses.
In the today’s work place age prejudice and discrimination regarding the older worker still exist. However, we have reached the tipping point. People with canes and walkers will shortly outnumber people in baby carriages. Nevertheless, most young individuals do not realize the consequence of prejudice against older workers. If older people are drummed out of the workplace, fewer and fewer young people will need to support more and more older people. Technological advances may well make work, even labor, possible for the elderly, but only a change in social attitude will make it probable. This is where counselors have work to do. Counselors, as educators, have a huge role to play in bringing about the end of age prejudice. For the good of all of us, the day of age discrimination in the workplace must end!
When counselors advocate for aging workers, and truly understand what is at stake if we do not do so, there will be new avenues for career development and career counseling for a population previously undervalued and under-served. The desire of aging Americans to find work for both financial stability and purpose will not only provide us with new clients, it will also afford us and them new opportunities for learning. Enough said. I urge all who read this blog to go to your computers and find and read the Report of the Senate Committee on Aging. Then, go to the site of the MIT Age-Lab and check it out, especially the resources. By understanding how the changing demographics of aging will affect us personally and our profession, we will be better able to help culture change in a positive direction.