Oregon OSHA Health and Safety


December 2015

Live long and prosper: the new case for productive aging

by Ellis Brasch

[Retirement] is no longer an automatic shift in gears from work to non-work at a set age. It is, rather, a voluntary withdrawal from the work force at the age that best suits an individual's abilities, interests, and career plans.”

The End of Mandatory Retirement: Implications for Management,
James W. Walker, Harriet L. Lazer (1978)

We’re all getting older – really. And, for those of us known as baby boomers, the consequence of this seemingly mundane reality will have a major effect on families and health care providers – and employers. Consider that the number of jobs held by Oregonians who are 55 and older has tripled since 1992. And the 55-and-over crowd is the only age group whose labor force participation is projected by the Oregon Employment Department to increase through 2020.

So, while those of us tagged with the baby boom moniker are losing our “prime working age” status, many of us are still working and will continue to work into the next decade. There are two reasons why we are continuing to work into our so-called retirement years. We enjoy the work that we are doing and see no reason why we should stop. Or, our lives have been complicated by the need to work longer than we had originally planned. Regardless of the reason, employers and workplaces will need to be prepared for the change.

Can we do our jobs as well as we did them when we were younger? Yes – most research shows no consistent relationship between aging and work performance.

But our bodies change as we age and those changes affect how we work and how we adapt to our environment. We reach full physical maturity at about age 25 and we start to notice changes in our 40s and 50s. Our maximum muscular strength decreases. Our joints are less flexible. Our hearts and lungs carry less oxygen. It becomes harder to maintain good posture and balance. Our sleep cycles are less robust. We are more sensitive to changes in environmental temperatures. Changes in our vision affect our ability to read at certain distances, our peripheral visual field, our visual acuity, our depth perception, and our resistance to glare. Higher frequencies are more difficult to hear. And cognitively, we find it harder to multi-task, our short-term memory is less nimble, and distractions tend to be more… distracting.


Infographic showing number of Oregon workers age 55 and older

Click to open full-size images

Infographic: U.S. workplace fatality rates by age

What effect do these changes have on our risk of injury at work? Older workers have fewer nonfatal injuries than their younger counterparts but their injuries tend to be more severe and it takes longer for them to recover. And, as we age, our risk of dying in a workplace accident increases. The fatality rate for workers 65 and older is dramatic – historically, three times as high as the fatality rate for workers aged 45 through 54. However, older and younger workers do have one thing in common: transportation accidents, which claim more workers’ lives than any other work-related event.

Still, work is good for many of us as we age. Work keeps us engaged in things that we enjoy doing. And work keeps us connected with other people and technological changes affecting the workplace.

While there has been a dramatic shift in the age of our nation’s population as baby boomers have aged, there are still few practical guidelines that employers can use to accommodate those who choose not to retire. However, help may be on the way. In October, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) opened the National Center for Productive Aging and Work which, in the words of NIOSH Director John Howard, will focus on “advancing the best ways to both address the needs and challenges of aging workers, and recognize the benefits of an aging workforce.” The center is hosted by the NIOSH Office for Total Worker Health.

Interestingly, NIOSH has been involved with research on aging and the older worker for the past 15 years, and the concept of productive aging – emphasizing the positive aspects of growing older – has an even older history. Robert N. Butler (author of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Why Survive?) coined the term in 1983 to counter the stereotype of older people as frail and unproductive.

The Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences also offers useful information on aging workers; check out its “Aging Workforce” webpage.

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