As I go around the country talking to people about my book Unretirement and its thesis (that today, retirement often includes part-time work, often with a purpose), I frequently hear people say: “I don’t think I’ll be able to work in retirement.”
They’d like to stay employed, they say, but that’s an unrealistic expectation considering the accumulated ravages of time and increased infirmities. I think that, in many cases, they’re being pessimistic.
Medical advancements (including ones we’ve yet to see) and workplace-design innovations at growing numbers of employers are making it easier to work into your 60s and 70s, albeit not for everyone.
Boomers Coping With Maladies at Work
Now, I’m no Pollyanna about aging. To be sure, getting up from my office chair is a slow maneuver these days, typically accompanied by a groan or two (maybe three). My knees were never good, but it takes longer for them to recover after a business flight. And I realize that plenty of leading-edge boomers are coping with some combination of maladies on the job—fading eyesight and hearing, maybe a limp, a bad back, arthritic hands.
That said, the assumption of widespread work-denying disability is greatly exaggerated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76% of people 65 and over rated their health as good, very good, or excellent. What’s more, the disability rate for people 65 and over dropped from 35% in 1992 to 29% in 2009, notes Steven Wallace, professor at the UCLA School for Public Health.
At the workplace, smart design, technological advances and organizational accommodation have done quite a bit to address physical issues faced by older workers.
Reconfiguring the Office Computer
John Smith, 55, appreciates how technology has helped him stay employed. Born with cerebral palsy, Smith works part-time evaluating websites and education programs for the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota, whose mission is bringing people with all kinds of disabilities into the community.
Smith worked there full-time before his life-changing accident a decade ago, when he fell and badly injured his spinal cord; he’s now confined to a wheelchair. His employer lets him use a trackball rather than a mouse to navigate his computer and the computer has software features built into Microsoft Windows that take into account his difficulties with the keyboard. Smith’s power wheelchair lets him raise his seat to be almost on eye-level when speaking to someone standing up.
“I have no doubt that technology is going to keep getting better and will allow me to increase my productivity for many years to come,” says Smith.
“One of the last bastions of widespread discrimination is the belief that to be disabled means being unable to work,” says Marca Bristo, 62, President and Chief Executive Officer of Access Living, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides housing, in-home assistance, advocacy and other services for the disabled. In 1977, she broke her neck diving into Lake Michigan and became paralyzed from the chest down. “Most people can work, even those with severe disabilities,” she says.
Case in point: Kate Williams, 72, program manager for employment immersion at the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco. Though blind due to a rare degenerative disorder, Williams trains and mentors people for jobs in finance, industry, government, nonprofits and other sectors of the economy. Adaptive technologies like Braille-enabled computers and voice recognition software (think Siri) help Willliams’ clients in many tasks.
“I think there is a job for everyone,” she says. “You just have to go after it.” Williams was awarded a 2014 Purpose Prize by the social venture Encore.org.
Hip Surgeries and Driverless Cars
The march of technology is making the formerly impossible now possible for many older workers. Advances in hip and knee replacement surgery already let them remain productive and active. (The idea for this column came from walking through the skyway with a colleague who casually mentioned that he had both his hips replaced. I never knew.)
David Lindeman, Director of the Center for Technology and Aging at the University of California, Berkeley, believes the coming-soon driverless car will have a dramatic impact on how people think about disabilities and prospects for employment. “For everyone with mobility limitations it will be a game changer,” he says.
Unretirement skeptics shouldn’t underestimate the power of good design—specifically “universal design”—for stretching out work lives, too. The universal design movement takes into account aging in the office with specially-created, utilitarian and aesthetically pleasing door handles, lighting and work surface heights.
The approach is an integral part of the corporate campus of office design and furniture maker Herman Miller in Zeeland, Mich. There, the doors have levers rather than knobs, because levers are are easier on aging hands. Desk drawers have easy-grip pulls.
Here’s the thing: Smart ergonomics isn’t just useful for older or disabled workers. “Whether it is chronic aging or acute injury, whatever we do to accommodate those particular situations, they’re going to be useful for everyone,” says Gretchen Gscheidle, director of insight and exploration at Herman Miller.
Will Employers Meet the Challenge?
Of course, technology and smart design only succeed at extending work lives if organizations embrace them. Companies like Walgreen, AMC and Hershey stand out for their concerted efforts to recruit workers with disabilities.
One question other employers need to answer: Will they hire and hang onto employees like Smith, Williams and Bristo?
Bristo sometimes gets frustrated at the slow pace of change. Her husband reminds her during those moments: “Just wait until the baby boomers get older.” That’s when change will speed up, he tells her, as employers realize they need the skill and experience of their older workers.
Yes, some older workers deal with more disabilities than others. That doesn’t mean they should be excluded from Unretirement—far from it.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media’s Marketplace and author of the new book Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and The Good Life. He writes twice a month about the personal finance and entrepreneurial start-up implications of Unretirement, and the lessons people learn as they search for meaning and income. Send your queries to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @cfarrellecon on Twitter.
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