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The retirement dance: risks and rewards of the older worker

The retirement dance: risks and rewards of the older worker

The old gospel spiritual “Time has made a change in me” reminds us that we are not who we were yesterday, nor will we be the same tomorrow as we are today. Aging bodies and minds clearly have an impact on workplace productivity and performance.

Older workers offer risks, as well as rewards for the employer. The National Research Council reported in “Health and Safety Needs of Older Workers” that workers over the age of 50:

• Are safer, having fewer work-related lost-time injuries than younger workers. Yet older workers experience more chronic diseases and musculoskeletal impairments.

• Have a lower incidence of depression, but the highest incidence of cancer.

• Have significantly lower incidence of short-term disability claims, but stay off work longer when taking a disability leave.

• Can learn new jobs or skills, though they may require changes in the learning process and environment. More importantly, older workers' learning is significantly influenced by their personal choices to engage in the learning or not. The choice is based on the perceived value of the proposed education opportunity.

• Have increased decision-making and judgment capacity in their mid- to late 40s through mid-60s.

• Report on job-satisfaction ratings that such things as job security, loyalty, benefits and feeling safe at work are “very important,” more so than salary.

These risks and rewards, when connected with the current workforce patterns and trends reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the AARP Public Policy Institute illustrate the need for employers to pay attention. For example:

• More people over the age of 55 are employed than ever before. This number is expected to grow each year through 2020.

• The largest single group of American workers over the next eight to 10 years will be over 50 years of age, with women between the ages of 50 and 60 being the largest subgroup.

• A majority of workers over 55 are less confident that they will have sufficient funds to live on during the estimated 20 years post-retirement individuals are expected to live.

The primary career development task for an older work force is making sound health and financial decisions that support an exit from the work force. These decisions and transitions begin long before the actual day of retirement. Some decisions are obvious, others more subtle. If not managed appropriately, the result can be costly with undesirable outcomes for all involved.

Productive aging is a personal and a corporate philosophy, supporting an informed and a well-defined transitional strategy to move from full work to full retirement. The productive aging model best fits individuals 55 years or older who are likely to want to, as well as need to, work for five to 10 more years beyond traditional retirement age. Productive aging is built on the foundation of:

• A commitment to work/lifestyle choices that sustain productivity during a distinct career transition.

• The reduction of health risks along with the impact of chronic musculoskeletal impairments.

• The pursuit of continuous engagement in skill development and learning.


The driving force in sustaining a safe and optimum work performance during the productive aging period is the level of engagement between the employee and the employer. The natural ebb and flow of engagement challenge both the employer and older worker. Competing values and changing self interests create barriers to a mutually beneficial transition. The older worker and the employer are now joined in a silently choreographed retirement dance.

In day-to-day terms, engagement—i.e. commitment/emotional involvement—is a function of value judgments. For example, a particular kind of work or way of doing work that once held high value, generated and sustained high interest and was felt to be vitally important, may begin to become less valued. A person may tire of some aspect of a job, such as traveling or an intrusive management style. The individual may simply reach a point where the satisfaction once gained from work or a particular job is no longer present.

Likewise, commitment to and emotional involvement with people—e.g. co-workers—are subject to the same types of value changes. A productive worker can slowly transform into a benign work place curmudgeon. It is when the older worker alienates management and co-workers alike that the retirement dance takes on a different tone and urgency. During the transition from full work to full retirement, value judgments can and do have as much impact as one's physical and mental health.

Engagement has many faces. A critical task for employers is to recognize the degree of engagement the employee is exhibiting. Likewise, employers need to recognize the level of commitment the organization presents to the employee.

Employee disengagement—or the “retirement two-step”—occurs when the older worker withdraws, intentionally or unintentionally, from the workplace before a formal retirement. This is characterized by poor job performance, petty workplace squabbles, and real injury but with exaggerated medical symptoms to seek relief through a disability claim. Employee disengagement may be more related to career fatigue, ambivalence related to wanting to be someplace else doing anything else, or family health issues.

On the other side, management disenfranchises the older worker when it reduces (intentionally or unintentionally) the level of expectations, benefits or recognition of the older worker. This may be commensurate with a change in organizational mission or expense control. Employers can misinterpret changes in employee functional capacities and priorities as a lack of commitment to the organization. A common employer strategy is to start a process of monitoring, performance management and moving the employee figuratively and literally out the door. When this occurs, unintended consequences occur.

Employers have choices. Disengagement can be ignored at the cost of losing a valued and skilled senior worker. Or the employer can prevent this back-door attrition by calibrating the degree of engagement/disengagement and applying all or portions of a productive aging program. Human resource assessment tools are used by a wide range of large and small employers to gain insight to the level of engagement the employee may have at critical points in their work life. With such calibration, a re-engagement plan can be developed.

Excessive costs and emotional baggage of a negative career exit are unnecessary and have a long-term impact on the younger workers who are interested spectators of the dance.

Productive aging offers a common-sense approach to reducing the risk and enhancing the rewards of the older worker. A measurable productive aging dividend can be achieved in the form of continued engagement between the employer and the employee. Continuous engagement reduces lost time and unnecessary use of the health care system to keep the retirement dance one of grace and dignity.

Kenneth Mitchell received his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University. He is a tenured associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, School of Medicine; director of rehabilitation for the Ohio Industrial Commission: vp of health and productivity development for Unum US; and currently serves as the managing partner of the WorkRx Group Ltd. He can be reached a