Employers sink or swim as the ‘Silver Tsunami’ rises

Gray matter: As the national workforce ages, U.S. employers must be ready to meet new employee demands, warns Northwell VP Terry Lynam.

For years, business owners and anyone who follows the business world have been preparing for Millennials – and soon after, Gen Z – to enter and transform the workforce. But in all the excitement over young people changing the way we work, we’re losing sight of another fundamental shift in workforce demographics.

The American workforce is, in fact, getting older.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 25 percent of the nation’s workforce will be over the age of 55 by 2024, with more than 30 percent of those workers older than 65. Businesses must open their eyes to the healthcare and wellness needs of an aging workforce – and start preparations now to accommodate the “Silver Tsunami.”

The truth is that most aspects of the country’s work cultures operate on the same retirement tracts of yesteryear. Office infrastructure, travel needs, advancements in technology – all are catered to fit the needs of the younger generations.

Research by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College found that the odds of employees having access to the flexible options they need are 74 percent higher for those between the ages of 27 and 35 than those 53 and older.

This doesn’t just mean how a company does business, but also how its environment affects staff members. Think about your office environment, especially if it’s located on suburban Long Island. Many of us park our cars and then walk from a parking garage to the office, usually taking a flight or two of stairs. We do all this without a second thought. But that same routine can be challenging for an older adult with arthritis or another mobility issue.

Terry Lynam: Senior moment.

For better or worse, office culture is still the dominant focal point in the American workforce; we must make these environments accessible to all if we want to have the best possible people driving our economy.

Today’s office managers should be asking themselves, at minimum, the following questions: Does my building have an elevator? Is the office wheelchair-accessible? Are the toilet seats raised? Is the building fully ADA compliant?

Such structural accommodations will be significant issues for employers as the Silver Tsunami rolls in. Many of them take time to incorporate, so playing catch-up will be difficult.

According to Tara Liberman, associate chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine at Northwell Health, the goal is to build around the four M’s: medications, mindfulness, memory and mobility.

“We are looking toward how we integrate the four M’s into our daily care for our aging community members,” Liberman says. “Everybody should be thinking about that when they are seeing [older workers] as a patient.”

Additionally, employers have to account for more employees becoming caregivers themselves. Many businesses consult with Northwell Health for help implementing health and wellness into their operations and assisting human resources teams in making accommodations for employees.

“We’re seeing that older employees are needing to take a lot of time off from work to care for a spouse or older parent who is dealing with memory loss or illness,” Liberman notes, adding that employers can prevent a productivity loss by connecting employees who are caregivers with the proper resources.

Social work services are also invaluable, not only to older workers but also to the “sandwich generation” that looks after children and aging parents at the same time. The clinical social worker in Northwell’s Geriatric Outpatient practice is integral to the multidisciplinary efforts that help families through challenging chapters of their lives.

“Navigating caregiving and accommodating for employees who are dealing with the declining health of loved ones are going to be the biggest hurdles with employees at this point,” Liberman adds.

Important to note: The federal Family Medical Leave Act protects staff members’ jobs while they take time off to care for a loved one. Furthermore, the New York State Paid Family Leave Act covers employees in the private sector in many industries, including some part-time workers.

It’s important to identify the needs of individual employees and find ways to connect them to the resources they need to succeed. People are going to remain in the workforce longer than their parents and grandparents – there is no cookie-cutter answer, but how employers adapt to the graying population may very well determine their success in riding the Silver Tsunami.

Terry Lynam is a senior vice president at Northwell Health, New York State’s largest healthcare provider and private employer.