The Silver Tsunami: Our Aging Workforce

The Silver Tsunami: Our Aging Workforce



Carl can still remember the first time he was at the Keurig coffee machine in the office cafeteria with Patrick, his new associate, when the age issue came up. The Silver Tsunami | Promise of an Aging Boomer Workforce | ACT TWO Patrick was a recent graduate of Holy Cross, one of the brightest young people Carl had ever met and a member of the Millennial Generation—those 78 million Americans between 18 and 34 who are struggling to find jobs, pay their college loans, move out of their parents’ homes, and, well, just generally struggling—much of which they blame on the Baby Boomers. Turning to Carl, Patrick somewhat audaciously asked, “When are you Baby Boomers going to get out of the workforce, so we can start our careers and I can take over your office?” Even in jest there is truth, Carl realized. Here was a young man worried about many things, from his love life to his car payments, and especially his future.  He even grumbled that Social Security would be bankrupt before his generation got a chance to collect its first checks, all because of the infamous Baby Boomers—those 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. The generational wars were now heating up, and on one or two occasions, Patrick even used the word “geezer.” Carl didn’t think of himself as a geezer, and he couldn’t accept the idea that he was an impediment to the Millennials either.  He was just trying to make it to retirement and stay afloat financially after losing a large chunk of his 401(k) savings in the economic collapse of 2008.  He loved Millennials.  In fact, he had three of his own (one of whom was still at home). Yes, inter-generational squabbling is becoming common in the workplace.  To mollify Patrick, Carl assured him that he could, indeed, have his office after he retired, somewhere around age 72.  (Some people fail to understand that early retirement only adds to the costs that have to be borne by the next generation.  It’s to everyone’s benefit that people stay in the workforce longer.)  

Retirement Ahead… Eventually

The Silver Tsunami | Promise of an Aging Boomer Workforce | ACT TWOThis much is certain.  Even though the Baby Boomers once fantasized about early retirement, those days are gone.  They suddenly sobered up after the Great Recession, when they saw their savings evaporate.  Many lost their jobs and their pensions, and now early retirement is as elusive as the Holy Grail or the Super Bowl for the New York Jets. A recent poll by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion showed that more than four in 10 Americans plan to delay full retirement, largely because of financial concerns, while almost 60 percent expect to work for pay even after they retire. In the coming years, the world and the workplace will look much different for a variety of reasons, only one of which is the Great Recession.  During the 20th century, there were considerable gains in longevity because of advances made in medicine and healthy aging.  As a result, many more people will work into their 60s, 70s and 80s. By 2020, an estimated 25 percent of the U.S. workforce will consist of people 55 and older.  At the same time, the ranks of older adults will swell to 97.8 million or 29 percent of the population, a trend often referred to as the “Silver Tsunami.” In addition there’s a similar worldwide demographic shift because many industrialized nations have declining birth rates.  Quite simply, the world is becoming grayer, and the workplace has yet to adapt to the inevitable changes that are coming.

The Silver Tsunami

The Silver Tsunami | Promise of an Aging Boomer Workforce | ACT TWOMichael Hodin, a member of the Global Agenda Council on Ageing of the World Economic Forum, says, “Our rapidly aging global population represents one of the greatest social, economic and political transformations of our time.  No country is immune.  No person is unaffected. And no company can afford to ignore it.” What does that mean?  According to the Council, there are 841 million people who are 60 and older, and they represent about 12 percent of the world’s population.  By 2050, though, the over-60 population will reach two billion—21 percent of the total.  We’re living longer.  Since 1950, global life expectancy has increased about 22 years to 71; in the United States, it is 78.7.  However, the global fertility rates have decreased from 6.0 to 2.5 per woman. Consequently, experts project there will be a shortage of workers in the future because of negative growth.  To the Council, these trends are warning signs that point to an impending crisis, which governments and corporations are not adequately prepared to confront.  At the same time, these numbers show the social need to create what Hodin calls an “age-neutral workplace,” one that fosters “an inclusive culture, life-long learning and participation, financial planning for longer working lives, healthy aging and supportive care-giving.”

Age-Friendly Business Policies

The Silver Tsunami | Promise of an Aging Boomer Workforce | ACT TWO The aging workforce is a priority concern for the World Economic Forum, and the Council has developed a set of seven guiding principles for “age-friendly businesses,” which they are urging corporations, non-profits and organizations to endorse, not only in the interests of protecting the elderly but also because they will ensure economic growth in the coming decades.  (See below.) Many Americans believe it is essential to protect older employees, according to a recent Marist poll on aging, which showed that 93 percent agree with the statement, “It is important… to work at a place that protects the employment of its aging employees.”  Furthermore, 49 percent said the U.S.  workplace is “generally friendly to older employees,” even though 8 percent say they have experienced age discrimination, most often from managers. More than 60 percent of Americans believe that mandatory retirement is a form of discrimination.  When asked what they thought an appropriate age for mandatory retirement actually is, most Americans, regardless of their generation, said 69.  If a company does not have a mandatory retirement age, 78 percent of the respondents said there should be performance evaluations to test the ability of older employees to do their jobs.

Opportunities Ahead

Paul Hogan, a member of the Global Agenda Council on Ageing, is chairman and co-founder of Home Instead Senior Care, the world’s largest non-medical care provider, and he sees opportunities for older workers, particularly in the fields of caregiving and healthcare, where shortages are projected in the coming decade.  “My company is a perfect example of how an aging population has created a complete and unique new opportunity,” he said.  “We have 65,000 caregivers who help about 65,000 seniors stay in their homes.  A third of our caregivers are over 60, so it’s a great way for them to stay engaged, employed and active.”

Hogan, whose company has endorsed the Guiding Principles for Age-Friendly Businesses, said, “We believe in these principles and we practice them.  We also realize there’s a reality that as age goes up, productivity can go down, and sometimes you have to have that conversation with employees.” The Silver Tsunami | Promise of an Aging Boomer Workforce | ACT TWO He told the story about an employee who had been with the company almost 20 years and who was a true “rock star.”  Then, well into her second decade, there was a blip in her performance that Paul had to address.  He likes to point out, however, that he had hired her when she was 64. Linda Fried, Dean of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and member of the Council, said at a recent round table in New York sponsored by the World Economic Forum, “Older people are the only increasing natural resource in the world, as far as I know. 

So how do we actually build to capitalize it, rather than putting all of us out to pasture at a certain magical date, when in fact, we know that we’re only now geared up to have a huge impact after a lifetime of experience?  The data say that as people get older, they accumulate a set of capabilities they never before had the benefit to tap into.” That’s certainly good news for everyone in their later years, and also good news for employers.  What exactly are these capabilities? They include, Fried said, a lifetime of experience to borrow from, accumulated knowledge, sources of wisdom that promote innovation, the ability to problem solve and develop solutions for complex issues, the patience to hang in there and very often, “the Rolodexes to pull it off.”  Those resources, she added, only come with age and they have economic benefits. The Silver Tsunami | Promise of an Aging Boomer Workforce | ACT TWO

The workplace of the future will, indeed, be a much different place.  The irony is that members of the Millennial Generation, including Patrick and his colleagues who are just beginning their careers, will be at the crest of the Silver Tsunami and reap the benefits of positive changes that are occurring—only because those notorious Baby Boomers had the foresight to initiate them now.    


By Joe Pisani


Joe Pisani, a journalist for 30 years, approaches life with wisdom and wit.  He writes frequently for ACT TWO.  His most recent pieces for ACT TWO include Age Better with Positive Thinking,   Grandpa? Pappy? What’s in a Name? ,  When It Comes to Love, It’s a Dog’s World and  La Dolce Vita Americana.  



Guiding Principles for Age-Friendly Businesses

Harnessing the Power of 21st Century Demographic Change Developed by the Global Agenda Council on Ageing of the World Economic Forum 1.  Age-Neutral Workplace Recognizing the potential contribution of employees at all ages and the value of a multi-generational workforce, we will encourage an inclusive environment and discourage age-related discrimination or hostility. 2.  Supportive Working Environment We aspire to develop working environments—including technologies, facilities, equipment and services—conducive to access and contribution regardless of age. 3.  Inclusive Culture We will strive toward development of a culture among our leadership, employees, suppli-ers, partners and customers that embraces the contributions of workers across all ages and that values a supportive multi-generational work environment. Such a culture will benefit our company and lead to the development of innovative products and services that meet the needs of 21st-century demographic realities. 4.  Life-Long Learning and Participation We will strive to create an environment encouraging a life-long focus on personal growth and development, including opportunities for cross-generational mentoring and learning.  Our intention is that these opportunities for learning should be available to employees of all ages. 5.  Financial Planning for Longer Working Lives Recognizing that financial security is a valued outcome of employment, we will strive to provide our employees, at every level, opportunities to gain financial literacy and work toward developing compensation and benefit solutions that meet the needs of a multigenerational workforce and emphasize personal choice and responsibility. 6.  Healthy Aging We will support employees of all ages in their commitment to an active and healthy lifestyle, providing encouragement and assistance as appropriate. 7.  Supportive Care-Giving As 21st-century demographic shifts bring increased care-giving obligations, we recognize that many of our employees may shoulder these responsibilities. Accordingly, we will strive to help our employees honor their care-giving commitments.    

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