Question About the Future: Recruiting the Retired, Our Aging Workforce

Question About the Future: Recruiting the Retired, Our Aging Workforce

May 13th, 2007 | Posted in Business & Economy

Our most recent question about the future is from Deb Palmer, of Washington State Dept of Natural Resources, who asks: “I’d be interested on your thoughts about the workforce—we’re starting to see shortages in some fields. The predictions are that the median age of the middle-class worker will continue to rise. What do we as employers need to do to be prepared for the dynamics of older workers? How can we prepare our employees for this? And anything you may see at relevant.”

Thanks, Deb, good question. We are, indeed, starting to see shortages. These are particularly obvious in the blue-collar workforce where industries reporting trouble attracting workers vary from utilities to transportation. While I haven’t done a scientific survey, it seems that the hardest jobs to fill right now are skilled labor, such as telephone linemen. These are long, hard jobs that take training and careful attention. They demand work in tough circumstances and during emergencies, when most people would actually rather be home with their families. Another short field is nursing – again, some education and training required (and a lot of it the high end of the field), hard work, many hours. Some of the work is rewarding, but some is unpleasant. And then for nursing and some of the other fields, add increasing demand for workers to the gap.

High tech firms, like Google and Microsoft, also report trouble getting the right workers. The Peace Corps is working hard to recruit the retired.

Demographics suggest that worker shortages will affect us all as the boomers retire.

Older workers is one result. In other words some boomers won’t retire, and many businesses may be competing for them. In order to keep knowledgeable workers, or attract them into new fields, we need to:

• Treat them with respect
• Help all generations in the workforce better understand how to talk to each other
• Remove the often real financial barriers to staying on – the math behind many retirement programs almost forces people out by a certain age
• Put senior wellness programs into place
• Add benefits that will appeal to older workers, such as more time off (and maybe even simply unpaid time off if they want it – they may already have a retirement income and prefer to work less hours).

I’ve added links to a few articles below that were particularly helpful on these topics.

Encouraging older workers is part of the solution. But across the long run, population in most first world countries is already falling, and ours is about even except for immigration, and anticipated to be below replacement well before world population peaks in 2050.

First, I’d work hard on productivity and innovation. Not working harder, but smarter. Is there routine and repetitive work that you can automate? If you are in the public sector, can specialized resources be shared? Is there work getting done that doesn’t really need to be done? Should you spend more on IT?

Second, we need to develop an immigration policy structure that supports legal immigration, increases quotas (particularly for desirable skills like doctors, engineers, and other professions, but also for skilled and unskilled labor), and helps people who immigrate here legally so they pay taxes and contribute to society. This one is hard to see since the current media hype about immigration is directed at the too-big flood of illegal immigration. But I’m sure that within ten or twenty years, there will be intense worldwide competition for human capital. Unless, of course, we develop artificial intelligences or robots that really want to do blue collar work. I’m not holding my breath.


Saying goodbye to the boomers: Worker Shortage Looms as Tens of Millions Prepare to Retire, by Teresa M. McAleavy, San Jose Mercury News
Summary: a good article about one particular employer who is concerned about and preparing for his company’s aging workforce

Four Generations – One Workplace — Can We All Work Together? by: Melissa Proffitt Reese and Tiffany A. Sharpley
Summary: good article about intergenerational employees and workplace dynamics, including a section on “5 Tips Employers Can Implement to Narrow the Generational Communication Gap”

Note that just for asking, Deb will recieve a free copy of my book, The Silver Ship and the Sea. If you’d like your own copy, or a copy of Glen’s Turning the Future into Revenue, ask us a question. We’ll give away books for one or two of the questions each month, for the next few months.

About Brenda Cooper

Brenda Cooper has been delivering keynote addresses on the future for over a decade. Her non-fiction has appeared in The Futurist Magazine and on She is also currently writing a non-fiction series called Backing into Eden, which is being re-published on multiple websites. Her talks are upbeat and positive, and generally focus on how we can solve the big problems facing mankind right now.


  1. Cooler Bag   |   May 5, 2009

    I like it very much

  2. Alvaro   |   Jul 22, 2007

    Hello Brenda:

    Great post on a very important topic. An aspect that is usually neglected is the potential for well-targeted cognitive training to maintain our skills in top shape as we age. You may enjoy the article Ten Important Truths About Aging just published in The Complete Lawyer,, and co-authored by renowned neuroscientits Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg and myself:

    Aging Means Lifelong Development, Not Automatic Decline
    Some Skills Improve With Age
    Some Skills Need To Be Continuously Nurtured And Trained
    Not All Instances Of Forgetting Are Of Equal Concern
    We Are In Control, To A Large Extent
    There Are Four “Pillars Of Brain Health”
    Cross-Training Our Brains Builds Up Cognitive Reserve
    Computer-Based Brain Exercise Programs Can Help
    Embrace “Good” Stress; Eliminate “Bad” Stress
    Retirement Is Overrated

  3. Nelson Guirado   |   Jul 14, 2007


  4. Asymmetric   |   May 19, 2007

    The problems is that people see immigrants as being either good or bad when the answer is much more complicated.

  5. Steven Ashley   |   May 13, 2007

    On the Aging Workforce question, I think the greatest problem, the upcoming shortage in Information Technology professionals can be traced directly back to the MBA’s and their need to improve corporate performance through outsourcing since the year 2000.

    It created a climate of fear among I.T. professionals, a lot of them left the industry an it still isn’t considered a wise choice to major in I.T. today in college. There are a lot of people in their 50’s and 60’s and very few in their 20’s in the industry so I see big problems in the future.