Project Management Institute

Living and working longer



Longevity is changing the world and the workplace. Be ready to adapt to your place in it.

With healthier habits and improved medical care, the active workforce is aging. At the same time, fertility rates are dropping. Across the globe, people are working longer and waiting longer to have fewer children.

“Longevity became the most important trend because, with falling fertility, the U.S. Census Bureau in 2000 predicted a shortage of workers,” says Harriet Hankin, author of The New Workforce [AMA-COM, 2005].

The expected shortage will change the composition of the workforce and attitudes about hiring older people. The traditional concept of retirement already is evolving from an immediate departure to a more gradual transition with a reduction of work hours over time. In some cases, people will return to full-time work after several years of semi-retirement and parttime employment. “There will be an abundance of older people, and they will need to work for either money or mental and social stimulation,” Ms. Hankin says.

The future workplace will increasingly value skills in negotiating alternative work arrangements.

What This Means

As staff shortages appear, older workers may have an edge on getting hired. “Compared to younger workers, they don't take more sick time, are not late, they learn easily and have a lower turnover,” Ms. Hankin says. “Who wouldn't want that?”

Younger workers entering the workforce and those trying to advance will counter this trend by bringing recent college training on “hard” skills and an aptitude for technology. Because they delay marriage and children, younger workers can accept more demanding assignments requiring longer hours, travel and relocation.

Those in the middle (ages 35–50) will have increasing difficulty balancing work and family demands. As more workers fall into the “sandwich” family category—responsible for young children and aging parents—the flexibility required for difficult assignments diminishes. Some employers, however, are attempting to accommodate the trend. “We will create our own work time in the future,” Ms. Hankin says. “We'll need every kind of arrangement to get the worker needed to do the job.”

A 2004 survey by the National Partnership for Women & Families found that nearly two-thirds of U.S. residents under age 60 believe they will be responsible for caring for an elderly relative within the next 10 years. There will be an increasing number of workers using flexible scheduling, especially those older parents.

A Need for Different Skills

The future workplace will increasingly value skills in negotiating alternative work arrangements. Almost 20 years ago, Ms. Hankin negotiated a pay cut in order to work only four days a week. “If workers need personal time off, they'll have to overcompensate with skills,” she says. “The worker has to bring as much to the table as the company.” To adapt:

Younger workers should focus on people skills, such as communications. Company training courses are a good place to start and can be put to use on assignments that require negotiation and conflict resolution.

Older workers should learn new technology. While there is no evidence that older workers can't learn new things, the stereotypes that they are “set in their ways” and technology-phobic still exist. Ms. Hankin suggests “reverse mentoring,” or forming a partnership with a younger worker to learn how to use a new system or software package.

Predicted shortages haven't occurred yet, but the new workplace still will follow the old law of supply and demand. Solve a problem or create value, and you'll find work. “The more you understand what drives the company and how you can help it meet its mission, the better,” Ms. Harkin says. PM

John Sullivan, PMP, is an IT project manager in Dayton, Ohio, USA.

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