Retirement and Social Engagement: Which “Third” Are You?

Posted Tuesday, June 7th, 2016| Comments Off on Retirement and Social Engagement: Which “Third” Are You? rule

Erika L. Sabbath, ScD

Assistant Professor
Boston College School of Social Work
Phone: 617-552-2934

How do you imagine your retirement?
If you’re like most people, you envision an active engagement with life: playing sports and pursuing hobbies, spending time with your family and friends, volunteering, taking active roles in political or religious groups, and involving yourself in professional organizations. Your retirement dream is that you’ll do everything you always wanted but never had time to do when you were working.

Then again, if you’re like most people, your dream has a shadow side. If, like many of us, you find and build some of your closest relationships at work, you wonder if those relationships will endure when you retire. And if they don’t endure, will retirement gradually erode and destroy your social connections? With declining health, some cherished activities (such as physically demanding sports) might become less appealing, or even possible, making retirement a time of less—not more—social engagement. When you think about this possibility at all, it is usually with a measure of dread.

Does retirement mean more or less social engagement? 
What does the evidence say?  In a recent study published in the European Journal of Ageing, my coauthors and I investigated this question. We used data from GAZEL, a longitudinal study (1989–2007)of more than 10,000 French utility workers. We focused only on those who had retired between 1992and 2004; they ranged in age (as of 2004) from 51–65. To track their patterns of social engagement in the years immediately before and after retirement, we used three measures: activity in social organizations, number of close friends, and number of close family members. We wanted to know the extent to which these measures increased or decreased over a relatively long period. Did people on the whole have more close friends before or after retirement? Did they spend more or less time on socially engaging activities? Did they have more or fewer close family members?

We found no single direction of change. About a third increased their level of social participation; another third maintained their preretirement level of social participation; and another third decreased their level of social participation. Retirement itself had no direct effect on social engagement in our study. Instead, we found that what “third” a person ended up in during retirement was influenced by what had occurred before retirement officially began. For instance, people who had lower-status jobs before they retired were more likely to be less socially engaged as their retirement progressed than those with higher-status jobs.  And these patterns of social engagement tended to persist and even intensify over time, with the potential to create widening inequality in social engagement and (because social engagement affects health status) eventually in health and well-being.

This finding suggests that organizations and programs aiming to improve social participation at older ages should target workers well before they actually retire. People tend to perpetuate and magnify in retirement the degree of social participation they practiced during their preretirement years. For us as individuals, knowing that our levels of social engagement before retirement tend to be carried forward and magnified during the retirement years can be a powerful motivator for us to continually create and nourish those connections throughout our adult lives. When you think about what third you will be in on the social engagement scale during your retirement years, keep in mind that when it comes to building social engagement, there’s no time like the present.

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Retirement Security: It’s Not Just About the Money

Posted Friday, May 20th, 2016| Comments Off on Retirement Security: It’s Not Just About the Money rule
Christina Matz-Costa, PhD
Senior Research Associate
Center on Aging & Work at Boston College
Assistant Professor
School of Social Work, Boston College
Phone: 617.552.1634

The issue of retirement security gets frequent attention in the media, for the simple reason that many workers are not building the financial resources that they will need to maintain an acceptable standard of living after their retirement. As much as financial planners and media tell workers that their retirement income should meet or exceed about 70% of their preretirement income (replacement rate), many Americans will fall far short. The expectations of employers in helping their employees to build retirement wealth are spelled out in laws such as ERISA, and pensions exceeding those minimums are one of the most frequently sought-after benefits among employees.

Investment in Psychological Security Post-Retirement

With all the attention paid to financial retirement security, psychological retirement security has gotten short shrift. In American culture, paid employment is a central part of many people’s identities—a way through which they are a contributing member of their families and society. But, retirement security isn’t just about money — it’s also about meaning and identity. Even those who say they hate their jobs often find meaning or purpose in bringing home a paycheck. What happens when that disappears?

Retirement can be a shock for workers who do not have enough resources to replace the psychological benefits that they got from work. Workers are constantly told to diversify their financial investments, but almost never warned that they should diversify their psychological investments, as well. How can workers be better prepared to replace both the financial and psychological benefits of paid employment?

Many workers are answering this question partly by staying in the workforce longer.  Some continue a successful career, while others move into retirement by scaling down their responsibilities gradually. Many seek bridge jobs to transition from full-time jobs to retirement. Gradual retirement, under the best of circumstances, can create a window of opportunity during which workers can build their financial and psychological retirement security. On the financial side, they may benefit from income and health insurance, among other benefits, from their less-demanding paid jobs. On the psychological side, they can explore new interests and roles—such as caregiving and volunteering — without disconnecting entirely from the psychological benefits of work. This can help them to remain engaged in productive activities as they age.

The Benefits of Bridge Policies

The sad truth, however, is that not all workers have good options for gradual pathways out of the labor force. Many older workers face long-term unemployment and, when older workers leave their jobs, their new jobs are often much less desirable in terms of benefits and pay. Others have to decide between retiring abruptly and continuing full-time because their employer doesn’t offer other options, and because part-time options in their field are limited. Employers who offer bridges between a full workload and full retirement can be a powerful force in building their employees’ financial and psychological security.

Many employers would support “bridge” policies, such as phased retirement, simply to do the right thing for their employees. But employers also have a vested interest in adopting these policies. Gradual retirement can build in time for succession planning, knowledge management, and retention of the valued skills and abilities of older workers. Yet, evidence suggests that the business community greatly undervalues bridge policies. For instance, the 2015 Talent Management study conducted by the Center on Aging & Work found that the leaders of American organizations typically are less committed to options for post-retirement-age work than they are to other benefits, such as training and development or competitive pay.

For employers
Benchmark yourself against similar employers in options for continued work and retirement, as well as other policies, and get customized tips: Workforce Benchmark Tool.

Learn more

About Flexible Work Options: Quick Insights from the 2015 Talent Management Study

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Little-Known Facts about Flexible Work Options

Posted Tuesday, April 26th, 2016| Comments Off on Little-Known Facts about Flexible Work Options rule
Jacquelyn B. James
Co-director, Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Research Professor, Lynch School of Education, Boston College

Even though many aspects of workplace flexibility are common knowledge, some have received scant attention and deserve more, because their effectiveness has been demonstrated clearly by research and practice. By the same token, other aspects—also seldom discussed—have negative consequences that should be recognized. Here are some examples.

Flexible work options can be appropriate for hourly and low-wage workers.

We tend to think of professional and managerial workers as prime beneficiaries of flexible work options, because many people in these jobs already make their own hours. In other jobs, such as retail sales and food service, flexible work options are unusual. The reason seems clear enough: Employers need to have workers on the job to keep stores and restaurants well-staffed during business hours. So add flexible work options to the list of benefits beyond the reach of low-wage workers that more privileged employees take for granted.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In 2008, Jennifer Swanberg, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland, and I surveyed hourly and professional employees of a national retail chain. Our CitiSales study (linked below) found that managerial support and innovative thinking made flexible work options realistic even for the chain’s low-wage hourly sales staff. Our study also showed that employees who have these options are more engaged in their work than those who don’t.

Flexible work options can happen even in the absence of organizational support.

In organizations that lack flexible work option policies, some managers implement them anyway—informally, but with commitment. These supervisors are “positive deviants,” going against the grain in the interests both of employees and the business. For example, one might tell an employee that it’s okay to take a longer lunch to check on an ailing parent, so long as the time can be made up later. Or a coworker might be allowed to swap shifts with a friend whose childcare fell through. Or an employee’s work schedule might be kept free on a given night so the employee can serve on the school board. Acts like these can be contagious in an organization when others see how well they work for the employee and the business.

Flexible work options (or the lack thereof) affect the whole work group, and sometimes those effects can be negative.

Most workers understand that the availability of flexible work options affects the whole group, not just the employees who uses them. On the plus side, these options—even to workers who don’t use them— are signals that the employer cares about the staff’s well-being. Thus, studies show  that policies used by only a few employees can have positive effects on the engagement and organizational commitment of the workforce as a whole.

Unfortunately, if the options aren’t well managed, their effects on the workforce can be negative. A worker might use a flexible work option again and again to trade for a more desirable shift, leaving others to take the undesirable shifts more often than they would otherwise. It’s easy to imagine the mounting dissatisfaction and resentment that such a policy could cause, if a supervisor did not step in to manage the fairness of the employee’s requests. As the results of this center’s Time & Place Management study show, successful flexible work options need to be actively managed. Both supervisors and workers need to understand that “no” can be a legitimate answer to a request for a flexible work option, if the effects on the work group would be counterproductive.

Painting the benefits of flexible work options with a broad brush can have a negative impact on morale, too. Employers and workers need to understand that, although flexible work options can be a win-win proposition, they work best with careful and ongoing management.

For employers

Benchmark yourself against similar employers in flexible work options, as well as other policies, and get customized tips: Workforce Benchmark Tool

Learn more

About Flexible Work Options: Quick Insights from the 2015 Talent Management Study
About Schedule Flexibility in the Workplace: Employee Access and Use, Implementation and Effectiveness
About the CitySales Study: Study Description
About the Time & Place Management Study: Study Description

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Passion, Purpose, and Impact: The Encore Secret Sauce

Posted Wednesday, April 6th, 2016| Comments Off on Passion, Purpose, and Impact: The Encore Secret Sauce rule
Jim Emerman
Jim Emerman Executive Vice President,
Guest Blogger, The Center on Aging & Work at Boston College

About a year ago, I asked in AGEnda if wisdom that deepens with age, when joined with a passion for leaving the world a better place, translate into a unique path to social impact. Is there a special “encore career” secret sauce, one that allows someone with maturity and the desire to give back to have a super-sized impact?

At the time,, where I work, was embarking on research to see whether programs that use what we call “encore talent” experience forms of impact that make a sometimes unexpected and often substantial difference.

Two recent reports suggest the answer is yes.

Masters in Service to Society

The first, “The Encore Talent Impact Project: A Study of Encore Talent at Work,” reports on the observations of more than 100 supervisors and managers in social-purpose organizations on the impact of nearly 1,700 people in encore roles. One of the biggest surprises from the data is that many introduced improvements conventionally associated with the work of full-time, paid staff—such as contributing new approaches, tools, and ideas to the organization.

The second, “Doing Good by Doing Well: Encore Fellows Build Nonprofits’ Capacity to Serve Children and Youth,” reports on three case studies. The author, Jacquelyn B. James, co-director of Boston College’s Center on Aging and Work (which hosts the AGEnda blog), teases out the dynamics whereby Encore fellows (participants in the Encore Fellowships Network, who serve one-year, stipended fellowships) combine business skills acquired over decades in the private sector with personal attributes to deliver exceptional value to the organizations they serve. For example, across all three cases, she noted that the fellows brought an ability to organize networks and groups, patience with process, good listening and negotiation skills, and a generally high level of emotional maturity.

Here’s that recipe for the “encore secret sauce.” The attributes that Dr. James observed are reflected precisely in the literature on mastery. And when we asked the respondents in our Encore Talent Impact survey whether the characteristics of mastery were present in the people they supervised, very high percentages said they were. For example,  more than 80 percent of these encore engagements were carried out by people who “successfully explained, mentored, coached and built relationships with others. 

Opening the Door to Encore Talent

It’s important to recognize that these characteristics, so tied to our notions of wisdom, translate into impact at a time when many people are rethinking the so-called “retirement years,” seeking instead to use their time and accumulated experience to improve their communities or to help future generations succeed.

We also know that often, abundant desire does not find its match in opportunity. According to 2014 research, 21.5 million people hope to move into social-purpose encore roles. But stubborn barriers still keep experienced adults from making the most of their talents in organizations that could benefit from them. Ageist stereotypes about the productivity of older people, whether in volunteer or paid roles, persist. And many nonprofits still won’t gamble on people coming to them from a corporate background. “They won’t fit in our culture,” they say.

It’s time to break down the barriers that keep talented people who want to serve from contributing to the nonprofit sector, which badly needs their talents. Nonprofits that understand the “secret sauce” of wisdom, experience, and mastery will welcome encore-stage adults in service of their mission. As these two reports illustrate, they’ll reap significant gains.

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Building Usability: 3 ways for employers to create a supportive environment for working caregivers

Posted Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016| Comments (3) rule
McNamara' photo Tay K. McNamara, PhD
Senior Research Associate
Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Phone: 617.552.8971
Kathleen McInnis-Dittrich Kathleen McInnis-Dittrich, PhD
Associate Professor
School of Social Work

Caregiving is an unavoidable reality for the workforce. Human resources policies such as “flexibility and breaks” and “financial supports and resources” can help working caregivers, but only if these policies move from employee handbooks to actual workplace practices. Many employees are uncomfortable about using these benefits, because they are concerned that doing so will make their coworkers, supervisors, or managers view them as less dedicated or competent, potentially jeopardizing their jobs. As Susan Eaton and others have observed, formal HR policies are insufficient if the workplace culture diminishes their usability—the extent to which employees feel free to act on those policies, confident that their career prospects and job security won’t suffer.

How can employers make caregiving policies more usable by the typical employee?

Workers: Education on site and on time

Educating workers about caregiving can help them to transition into and sustain their engagement both in work and caregiving over time. Keep in mind that employees may already be under pressure to balance work and caregiving responsibilities, so it’s smart to make caregiving-related informational resources available to workers on site and during regular work hours, preferably at times that don’t interfere with work tasks.

Lunch and learns are a good example of how to handle this. Typically offered on site during the lunch break, lunch and learns are opportunities to convey practical information to caregivers. Here are two models:

  1. Learn + share: Some of the meeting is instructional, presenting solid information on such pertinent topics as advance directives. During the remainder of the meeting, participants share ideas and process emotions.
  2. Learn from community resources: Bringing in presenters from community agencies and omitting time for participants to share their responses can appeal to employees who are not yet able, ready, or willing to make their status as caregivers known.

Coworkers and work teams: Pay it forward

Caregivers often fear that their coworkers see them as shirking or less serious about their work. Connecting these workers to coworkers (individually or as a group) in caregiving-supportive relationships can increase their confidence to take advantage of other caregiving policies. Coworker- and work team-based information and support programs often function best as pay-it-forward arrangements, in which new caregivers learn from experienced caregivers, and eventually become resources and mentors themselves.

Informal collaborations are a good way to organize such an arrangement. Here are two models:

  1.  One-on-one: An employee known to have some caregiving experience can be invited to mentor a colleague new to caregiving, helping the newcomer negotiate challenges both at work and in health service systems.
  2. On-site support groups: Employees join such a group voluntarily, and spend the first meeting brainstorming about the kinds of topics with which they could use help. Each week, group members are given “homework,” to encourage a sense of process.

Managers and supervisors: Gateways to organizational culture

Managers and supervisors have a huge influence on how comfortable workers feel about using their caregiving-related benefits. For this reason, both groups must buy in to the idea that support for working caregivers is in the organization’s best interests.

Training and educational resources can promote buy-in. With the right training and information, managers will learn to identify employees who are caregivers and help them to connect with community services (if needed) or to negotiate flexible work schedules to accommodate caregiving responsibilities. Here are two strategies:

  1. Direct manager training: Offer training sessions in which managers learn what they can ask appropriately, how to help employees identify needs that conflict with work schedules, and what combinations of support and fair compromises by the employer they can offer.
  2. Articles in company newsletters or on company websites: These could be original pieces on caregiving issues by HR staff or produced on contract by community agencies, such as the Alzheimer’s Association or Caregivers Alliance. People who don’t like the group approach will be especially appreciative of this alternative learning method. Consider linking to such resources as Employer Solutions for Family Caregivers, as appropriate.

Creating a workplace environment where people recognize, accept, and support the organization’s policies and programs for workers with caregiving responsibilities is essential for these policies to count. Building such acceptance within your organization at the individual, coworker/work group, and managerial level, by providing information and support, can ultimately increase the usability of other work/life balance programs, as well.

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Positive Deviance: Supporting Working Caregivers

Posted Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016| Comments (2) rule
Faculty Sponsor, Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Professor, Graduate School of Social Work & Caroll School of Management, Boston College

Employees of all ages can find themselves unexpectedly navigating the unpredictable waters of elder caregiving. As they attempt to identify resources, services, and supports, many say they’re just making it up as they go along. In part, their sense of having to improvise reflects the complexities and fragmentation of the elder care service system: working caregivers learn to be grateful for whatever information and assistance come their way. Some families do figure out on their own a manageable way to look after elder relatives; often, they succeed because a nonworking family member is willing to take charge. But if everyone in a family is working, the transitions into elder caregiving can be overwhelming. According to a 2015  AARP Study, about one out of 20 employees had been forced to quit a job to care for an adult family member.

What it takes to stay

Why do experienced workers leave their jobs when caregiving responsibilities arise? Some employees are so perplexed by the sudden demands of elder care that they decide to leave the workforce so they can focus on the range of caregiving decisions they must make. Others, able to juggle work and care, want to keep their jobs, and would do so, given some flexibility and help. But if their supervisors and managers are unsympathetic, they might decide that their only choice is to quit.

In many domains of flexible workplace policy, employers have transcended some of the logistical challenges and pursued innovative talent management strategies. These employers have been called positive (or creative) deviants. The notion of positive deviance is familiar to public health experts, who have documented the benefits that early adopters of new health practices can reap: see, for example, Zeitlin, et al. on childhood nutrition (1990). Employers who are the early adopters of talent management innovations in caregiving policies and practices might find that these changes improve retention of employees with expertise and experience.

Learning from within

This country’s demographic trends leave no doubt that over the next two decades, the number of employees with caregiving responsibilities will increase. The compelling question is whether most employers are both willing and ready to partner with their employees as they plan for and manage the range of legal, financial, and caregiving challenges in store. One way for an employer to start on the path toward creative deviance is to read case studies  of programs developed by other employers. A good one is this study of Kimberly Clark, which built its Family Caregivers Network from the ground up, using resources already in place at that company. Next, an organization can search within its own ranks for managers and supervisors who have struck out on their own to support employees who have caregiving responsibilities. Learning from them, the organization can customize a formal program to suit its workforce and culture.

The experience of a large healthcare organization is a case in point. Recently, a group of colleagues and I partnered with this organization, because it wanted to adopt some innovative flexible work options. (The results are described in detail here.) Our first step was to identify supervisors who had already succeeded in making small changes that allowed for scheduling flexibility. Their experiences and stories provided both inspiration and reassurance to other supervisors in the organization when the time came to implement the new options.

Encouraging supervisors and their work teams to engage in creative problem solving can help to bridge the gap between the needs of a given organization and studies of what has worked elsewhere.

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“But your mother lives 1200 miles away!” Using flexibility and breaks to support long-distance working caregivers

Posted Tuesday, February 9th, 2016| Comment (1) rule
Associate Professor
School of Social Work

When an employer thinks about an employee who serves as a caregiver, the image that often comes to mind is of a middle-aged woman caring for her mother, who lives relatively close to the caregiver’s home and workplace. Quick trips to handle a crisis for the care receiver or a few local phone calls hardly seem like major disruptions in the workplace. However, such demands can grow substantially as the geographic distance between the caregiver and the care receiver increases. According to a 2015 report by the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP Public Policy Institute—Caregiving in the U.S.—about 5 percent of those who provide 21 or more hours of care per week and 8 percent of those who provide 0–20 hours of care per week live more than two hours away from the person they are helping.

Long-distance caregiving—defined as caring for someone who is more than 100 miles away—is a critical issue for employers. Most of these caregivers are working full- or part-time, and sometimes they must rearrange work schedules, miss work, or even quit their jobs to deal with caregiving responsibilities. Keep the big picture in mind in calculating what the loss of a valued employee ultimately costs a company. If an employee cannot find a way to meet the demands of caregiving as well as the demands of the employer, he or she will probably seek different employment. The cost of recruiting and retraining employees may far outweigh the cost of offering employees opportunities for a work-life balance that suits both parties. The long-term benefits to a company of a stable, competent workforce outweigh the short-term cost of flexible work arrangements. With some thought and planning, employers can develop a proactive stance that anticipates their own needs and those of the long-distance caregivers they employ.

Here are some practical tips for employers:

  1. Consider a plan for flexible use of sick time, personal leave, and vacation time. One of the greatest challenges of long-distance caregiving is the time required to make phone calls to service and medical care providers who can be reached only during regular business hours. Flexibility in start and quit times can cover some of these needs, but developing a plan for flexible use of a caregiver’s sick time, personal leave, and vacation time can help to fill any gaps. Allowing an employee to use an hour of personal leave time to make phone calls during the work day keeps the employee at the workplace, recognizes that an employer isn’t required to subsidize the time needed to meet caregiving responsibilities, and does not unduly burden employees by forcing them to take an entire day off.
  1. Proactively offer caregivers a variety of flexibility in structuring the work environment. The need for flexible work options to accommodate frequent, often unexpected, trips to attend to a care recipient should go beyond flexible starts and stops to the work day. Long-distance caregiving requires a different time commitment than a few hours here and there. Flexible arrangements might include flexible work weeks, telecommuting, or work-at-home arrangements. Most caregiving does not go on indefinitely. These flexible options, as well as job sharing and temporary part-time employment, are arrangements that may not be needed long, and they encourage valued employees to keep their jobs.
  1. Provide opportunities for co-workers to pool benefits such as sick days, vacation, and personal time on behalf of a colleague responsible for long-distance care. In work settings with employees who are friends as well as co-workers, a collaborative approach to helping out a caregiver is excellent for company morale. Almost all employees will face some kind of caregiving responsibility in the future. The opportunity to pay it forward will be seen as a good faith effort on the part of management, generating employee loyalty.

These three approaches use flexibility and breaks as a core model for supporting long-distance caregivers in the workplace. (Click here to learn more about this model, which focuses on temporary leaves of absence or reconfiguration of work arrangements as a strategy for supporting working caregivers). Observing this model in practice demonstrates how companies can build on existing options to create a workable strategy for a wide variety of caregivers. Many employers have already put in place some of the policies just discussed. By augmenting them, many caregiving-related policy gaps can be filled.

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Disrupting the Workplace: How Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference

Posted Monday, November 9th, 2015| Comments (2) rule
Faculty Sponsor, Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Professor, Graduate School of Social Work & Caroll School of Management, Boston College

We live in an age of innovation. From travel to technology, financing to food, every industry is driven by a sense that rethinking and reinventing is the key to success. Yet when it comes to the way we work, so many of us are stuck in old patterns that have barely changed in decades. Most of us go to workplaces that look very much like they did decades ago; we work Monday to Friday (well, okay, often on Saturday and Sunday as well) on the same 9-5 schedules that our parents did; and (with the exception of the use of new technologies) we complete many work tasks using the same steps we always have.

It is time to disrupt the workplace. We can ignite positive disruption by asking a simple question: If you could walk in to work tomorrow and change one thing that would make your workplace better, what would it be? This is the question posed by OpenWork, a new online platform built so that employees at all levels of the organization can share the stories of what happens when employees and employers collaborate to reinvent how work is done. I’m proud to be among those who are introducing OpenWork.

The term “disruptive” often has negative connotations. However, ever since Clay Christensen introduced the language of “disruptive technologies,” leaders in the business world have begun to think about some of the positive consequences of disruption, particularly when change and innovation introduce transformative solutions. I like to place the aging of the workforce into the context of disruptive demographics. With baby boomers now making up the largest percentage of the workforce, and given that many people are choosing to work later into life than ever before, these changing demographics have already disrupted the workplace. Companies that see this opportunity and utilize these new demographics to their advantage will have a leg up on their competitors moving forward. In order to do that, companies, executives, managers and employees will all have to think about designing work a bit differently.

Not that long ago, there were two primary responses to the aging of the workforce: promote early retirement, or develop technologies that help older workers compensate for physical decline. Both of these approaches still have some relevancy, but neither recognize what a mountain of research has shown: not only can older workers offer concrete benefits to employers, but there are distinct bottom-line advantages for those workplaces that adapt appropriately to suit the needs of a multigenerational workforce. Many employers have already realized that rather than try to get older workers to retire, they need to figure out how to keep them on board.

A lot of people are scared off from conversations like this because they assume that in order to accommodate a changing workforce they are going to need to change everything. But sometimes just slight shifts in thinking or operations can make huge differences. For example, a lot of companies have leadership development programs, and many HR people will admit these are mostly used for younger employees. They rarely consider someone late in their career for reasons that seem intuitive: Why spend resources on someone who is going to retire soon? Yet statistically speaking, older workers are actually more likely to stay with a company for longer, so when you break it down, putting someone in their 50s or 60s on a leadership track may pay more dividends than focusing only on younger workers. I’ve seen companies make this kind of small change—not instituting a new program, but realizing that an existing program can be well-suited to diverse, unexpected employees—and quickly reap the benefits.

Recently at the Center on Aging & Work’s Innovation Lab, one company exploring ways to engage their multigenerational workforce came up with the idea of an employee internship program, where people worried about aging out of certain departments—say, grounds and buildings— could learn new competencies, such as financial skills, that might allow them to remain in the workforce longer or possibly transition to self-employment. Again, this is an inexpensive and resource-light approach that has the potential to keep valuable, trusted and experienced employees on the job for longer than expected.

There can be benefits for employers to view disruptive demographics not as a downside, but as an opportunity to innovate. Many companies are taking similar steps to attract millenials, working parents, and others as the talent war escalates once again. That’s what OpenWork is all about: Small changes that make a big difference, disrupting the way we work and shattering the poverty of imagination that holds all of us back.

At we’ve compiled the stories of 12 businesses that have each innovated to ensure their workplaces make sense for employees and managers alike. Each of these businesses has made small changes that resulted in big dividends. As demographics continue to disrupt the workplace, I believe the only way for companies to succeed moving forward it to embrace these changes and adapt existing approaches in order to make the most of them. For more stories of companies that have made small changes with big impacts, follow OpenWork on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

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Should employers provide eldercare benefits?

Posted Wednesday, September 30th, 2015| Comments Off on Should employers provide eldercare benefits? rule
Donna L. Wagner, PhD
College of Health and Social Services, New Mexico State University

The 2015 “Caregiving in the US” Survey recently released by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP is the latest in a series of caregiver surveys that began in 1997; preceded by an 1987 survey conducted by AARP and Travelers Insurance. These “snapshots” of caregiving are instructive to policy makers, advocates, researchers and practitioners. Although the sampling approaches in the surveys vary making comparisons over time difficult, it is enlightening to see how caregiving in the U.S. has changed between 1987 and 2015.

More caregivers report they are working in the 2015 survey than in any of the previous surveys; a finding that is, by the way, consistent with other studies of family caregivers. And, for the first time, the survey asked about the provision of complicated medical tasks by family caregivers – more than half of the respondents (54%) reported they were or had been responsible for medical tasks and only 14% reported that they had been trained in that task.

Caregivers are, on average, older than in the past. In 1987, only 2% of the caregivers were over the age of 65; in 2015 nearly one in five were that age (19%).  The idea that working and aging are two factors in the lives of family caregivers is not a surprising trend. Women are more likely than men to provide care and the increase in older women who work and remain in the workplace over the next decade is pretty amazing –more than half (56.6%) of women between age 60 and 64 and 27% of women between 65 and 74 are expected to be in the workforce by 2018.

Times have changed and so has the life of the caregiver since that first survey 28 years ago. Over the nearly three decades since the first caregiving survey was conducted, there has been an increased focus on home and community based services and on the value of remaining “independent” in the community. While philosophically this focus respects the independence and autonomy of older adults, the reality is that for many, this “independence” is possible only because of family assistance.

The first workplace eldercare initiatives were started in the 1980’s in response to the caregiving surveys and an awareness of the difficulties faced by caregivers. Employers have been providing programs and benefits to employees with caregiving responsibilities since. However, according to the Society for Human Resources   data, there has been a steady decline in investment in these benefits and programs. Between 2008 when 20% of the employers surveyed were providing eldercare referral and 2014, when the current survey was being fielded, the percentage of employers providing this benefit had dropped to 5%.

Nonetheless, there are some strong programs that have withstood the test of time and are likely to provide substantial help and assistance in the future.

  • Fannie Mae’s independent geriatric care manager program helps employees with caregiving strategies and support. A valued program that has stood the test of time since it began in 1999, it is a model that has not been replicated.
  • Emory University’s recent planning for an inclusive approach to a system-wide program designed to address work-family issues is slowly coming on line and should result in better support for employees and some interesting lessons for other employers.

But, is it the role of employers to provide support services for family caregivers? Many employees have already “voted with their feet” on that topic by not using programs or benefits that are available to them. With the exception of Fannie Mae’s program, utilization rates of eldercare programs are in the single digits.

The demographics of the future includes a growing number of oldest-old Americans, many in the current generation of younger workers who “forgot to have children,” and a generation of workers who like their jobs or who can’t afford to leave the workforce. This future scenario is beyond one sector’s efforts to address and calls for some thoughtful problem solving by us all.

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Are You Sitting on a Lost Knowledge Time Bomb?

Posted Wednesday, September 9th, 2015| Comment (1) rule
David DeLong, DBA
Smart Workforce Strategies, Concord, Mass.

Many organizations are sitting on a ticking time bomb of lost knowledge – or lost capabilities.  The common refrain is, “we have lots of veteran employees with deep knowledge of complex systems or products, and no idea how we’re going to sustain these capabilities when our people retire.” When these older workers go, the performance of their organization is going to take a big hit.

Here are four questions to determine whether retirements are likely to threaten your organization’s capabilities:

1. Are your offices or operations located in a rural, suburban or urban setting?
Organizations operating in rural settings are usually at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to recruiting replacements for highly skilled workers and managers. Not only is there a smaller talent pool to recruit from, but it is also harder to entice younger talent to relocate to your part of the world. If you’re running this type of operation, or have part of your organization in a rural setting, you need to plan even further ahead for key transitions because it will take longer to fill those roles.

2. Are you clear about which jobs matter and which don’t?
All jobs are not created equal when it comes to sustaining critical capabilities. An industrial distribution company in the Midwest has a 70-year-old salesman who is their only expert in making and selling hydraulic hose couplings. Top management recently reclassified him as a hydraulics specialist, so he could focus on transferring his unique knowledge to other sales people.

Meanwhile, the company’s purchasing manager retired on short notice, and the CEO saw that as an opportunity to bring a more skilled person into this role. When it comes to transferring and retaining knowledge critical for future performance, you must be clear about which employees pose a risk and which present an opportunity to upgrade your talent.

3. Are you making the right assumptions about how much time you have to deal with the risks of knowledge loss?
Executives consistently underestimate the time they have before facing these problems. Many leaders don’t see a link between their aging workforce with the problem of serious skills gaps.

One of the hardest things to deal with is unplanned retirements of employees you’re counting on to stay longer. As an employer you have a right to do succession and workforce planning. That means you can ask valued employees to keep you informed about their retirement plans, but these conversations must be handled extremely carefully to avoid any suggestions of age discrimination.  It is important to get advice from an attorney or HR expert before broaching the subject of retirement because you need to know what to do and what not to say. But if handled appropriately you will greatly reduce the risks of being blind-sided by an unexpected and costly departure.

4. Can you recruit, develop and RETAIN the Millennials needed to replace retiring workers?
One reason that an aging workforce is so problematic for many companies is that leaders have learned how difficult it is to develop and retain a new generation of highly skilled employees. The needs, values and behavior of the generation entering the workforce are a consistent source of frustration for many managers. Different priorities, work styles, and ways of learning clash with what many Baby Boomers expect.

But, as frustrating as these differences are, you have no choice! Aging Boomers are going to retire – or die – eventually. And every organization that expects to survive, much less grow, is going to have to figure out how to prosper with a Millennial workforce. Organizations that find a way to engage and retain productive younger workers fastest are going to be much more successful in negotiating the great wave of Boomer retirements. If you ignore this problem, your organization is much more at risk of losing critical capabilities as more Boomers retire.

What do you think? Do you have essential knowledge at risk in your organization? What questions are you asking to determine where your greatest risks are? I’d welcome your comments.

note: Dr. DeLong is the author of the book “Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce”.

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