Our aging population means changing the way workplaces deal with disability.

Our Workplaces Are Not Ready for the Coming “Silver Tsunami”

Our Workplaces Are Not Ready for the Coming “Silver Tsunami”

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Better Life Lab
The Future of Work, Gender, and Social Policy
Dec. 27 2017 11:09 AM

Our Aging Population Needs Workplace Adjustments. We Have to Find a Way to Provide Them.

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by iStock.

Dolly, a 66-year-old resident of southern Maine, began working as a young teenager, eventually securing a job with her local public school system. She worked for 29 years as the administrative assistant for the district’s adult education program. After a surgery required to combat endometrial cancer, Dolly says she was “slammed into menopause,” and as a result, her memory and focus started faltering. “I would liked to have worked until I was 70, but I could see writing on the wall that my director was not happy; I was having a terrible time keeping up,” says Dolly. She felt “pushed out the door,” and she approached her boss about beginning to plan for retirement in a few years. A few weeks later, she was given a retirement date for the end of that school year. “I did feel definitely pressured to retire right then,” she says. Dolly, who asked that we use only her first name for fear of potential negative professional repercussions, and her husband were not sure they could manage on their pensions and Social Security and are both looking to find part-time jobs to stay afloat.

In the early 2000s, the forecasted disasterlike magnitude of the needs of the U.S.’s huge aging population earned them the nickname the “silver tsunami”—baby boomers (those born between 1945 and 1963) who are approaching retirement and in increasing need of elder care services; some estimate that 1 in 5 Americans will be over 65 by the year 2030.

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Of course, not all baby boomers will be retiring, and certainly not retiring at the rates of their parents. That’s because our economy is very different today, and many boomers either never had adequate retirement funds or had them wiped away in the Great Recession. According to one survey, two-thirds of baby boomers will continue to work after age 65.

Sue, a 60-year-old grandmother in Columbus, Ohio, who also wishes to use her first name in case of negative repercussions to her professional life, has been working for 35 years in various administrative capacities for a large church in the city. When she was raising her children, she did not work full time. “I was primarily a stay-at-home mom,” Sue says. Usually she worked for only a few hours on the weekend. But with a late-in-life divorce, her retirement became a pressing concern. After speaking with a financial adviser, Sue is hopeful to retire at 67 and spend more time with her family. But she is also keeping an open mind—she knows she may find herself working into her 70s if the government continues delaying the age she can access Social Security.

Sue is not alone. A 2016 retirement confidence survey cites several reasons for this: a poor economy, inadequate finances, and needing to pay for skyrocketing health care costs. According to this survey, 46 percent of retirees left the workforce before they planned to, with 55 percent of that number leaving because of a disability or health problem.

In an article in the University of Chicago Law Review, Michael Stein, visiting professor at Harvard Law School, and his co-authors argue that retaining older workers’ capabilities is in everyone’s interest, precisely because the financial costs of Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable, and pensions are dwindling as baby boomers are living longer. Thus, creating workplaces that effectively accommodate aging bodies is to the economic benefit of the country—and to the social benefit of those who want to continue to work. And as Stein and his colleagues suggest, this kind of flexibility can be considered a workplace enhancement tool—making workplaces more adaptable and allowing them to both retain employees and ensure productivity at the same time—that is best for the economy and for the worker.

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The Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990 and amended in 2008 to cover a wide array of age-related conditions, was designed to provide strategies and tools for people to continue working despite an impairment. It was developed as a result of decades of political activism, known as the disability rights movement, and, among other components, prohibits discrimination against disabled people in the workplace. No one can be fired or denied a promotion on the basis of a disability if a reasonable accommodation can be made to allow a person with a disability to perform the job. The problem with the ADA is that while it was intended to cover a large scope of human bodies, it has been interpreted in a very limited way by the courts.

According to Stein and his co-authors, before 2010, more than 97 percent of claimants in federal trial courts lost. The 2008 amendments were designed to make it easier to prove you qualify as disabled, but challenges remain. Stein and his colleagues write that one of the main barriers to claimant success is this balancing act in trying to prove that they are disabled enough but not too disabled, something that many older working Americans may have trouble balancing with gradually developing, age-related impairments such as muscular-skeletal pain; vision impairments; or, like Dolly, memory and focus problems. Statistically, even if Dolly had used the ADA to ask for accommodations, she’d have low odds of winning her case. And that’s if she can even find a lawyer who wants to get behind her in the first place.

AARP has a pledge program that works with employers to encourage the hiring and retention of older employees. According to Heather Tinsley-Fix, senior adviser for AARP, employers become aware of this program through active recruiting at various HR conferences and often voluntarily opt-in.

While AARP’s program is a start, not having official standards for hiring and retaining older workers leaves many businesses guessing at best practices; the work of Stein and his colleagues around universal design in the workplace is a helpful and strategic place to start.

Beth Loy, a principal consultant with the Job Accommodation Network, has several practical solutions for accommodations in the workplace, including moving work stations closer to restrooms and providing access to refrigerators, allowing personal attendants at work, and providing flexible schedules and self-paced workloads. According to Loy, the trade-offs for providing accommodations are invaluable, including providing long-term institutional knowledge, well-established workplace networks, and diversity of perspectives.

There are indeed ways in which older workers contribute invaluably to the workplace—their institutional memory and long-term commitment being just two examples. But in the absence of any effective way to require companies to accommodate their employees, these aging workers are at the mercy of the market.

Thanks to Nicole Buonocore Porter, professor of law at the University of Toledo, for her help with this post.

Better Life Lab is a partnership of Slate and New America.

Ally Day is assistant professor of disability studies at the University of Toledo. She co-edits Disability Studies Quarterly and is finishing her book, Stigmatizing Narrative: Medicine, Memoir and the Social Contract.