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Aging Workforce Presents New Challenges

The American workforce is getting older, and senior workers are putting in more hours, creating new concerns for employers and injured worker advocates.

Some stats:

  • One in four workers (24.8 percent) will be 55 or older in 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This share is up from 22.4 percent in 2016 and 16.8 percent in 2006.
  • The over-65 and over-75 worker segments are growing particularly fast, having more than doubled between 1994 and 2014. The rate of over-65 workers holding full-time instead of part-time schedules has risen steadily over that time.
  • The trend is still pointing north: The 65-74 worker segment is projected to rise 55 percent between 2014 and 2024, and the over-75 segment by 86 percent.

Dr. Joel Morton

Whether they work for satisfaction or economic necessity, older workers are especially vulnerable to injury. And though the frequency of occupational injuries declines with age, injuries tend to be more severe in older workers and can take longer to heal. Injuries that occur to older workers are also more likely to be fatal, according to the CDC.

The aging of the workforce has implications for workers’ compensation. Claims for over-45 workers are 73 percent higher on average than for under-45 workers, by one account. In a recent Lockton Companies study, average claim costs rose by $722 for each year of employee age from 20 to 50. Lost-time claimants averaged 96 days off in Lockton’s data set with 55-plus workers taking about 12 days longer.

Adding to the complexity of older worker injury are disabilities that can emerge or worsen in aging workers. The older body is more prone to strains, thinking slows down, and medication gets more complicated.

The value of older workers

Although older workers present another layer of health care costs, there is ample reason to embrace them. AARP commissioned a comprehensive look at the business case for the over-50 worker, concluding that older workers:

  • Add value to organizations with higher levels of engagement, stability, productivity and experience
  • Mitigate current and future talent shortages
  • Don’t cost as much as people think.

Employers who can successfully integrate them with younger workers and modify their physical demands have a better chance at keeping them healthy and productive.

One intriguing idea in this area is the use of robots and exoskeletons to help workers lift heavy objects. Lifting is a particularly big concern in health care, where patients frequently need to be moved. As workers get older and patients get heavier, back injuries in healthcare cost upwards of $20 billion annually. This video from 2016 and article from July hint at the promise and concerns of exoskeletons.

A resource for employers

To more broadly address the concerns around older workers, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 2015 created the National Center for Productive Aging and Work. The center’s website includes strategies for an age-friendly workplace, research, statistics, fact sheets, training material and an agenda for future research.

“Optimizing working conditions to match the reality that every worker is aging, from the first day on the job to the last, is essential,” said NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D. “If our nation is to maximize its economic potential and keep workers safe and healthy, we must make this area of research a top priority.”

Agreed.