Workforce & Economics

Maximizing our human capital

May 3, 2016 / By Linda Fried

Older people possess vast reserves of human capital that currently go un- or under-utilized in the workplace. Mostly this is owing to outmoded attitudes that haven’t caught up with the reality of longer lifespans and greater physical and mental capacity into old age. This wasted potential can be realized if we change our thinking and make some practical changes to bring expectations and workplaces into line with 21st century realities.

Employers and society stand to benefit from harnessing the assets of people of older ages. The corollary is that, to get older people to be on board, the “harnessing” needs to be aligned with their goals and needs.

This will require:

  1. Awareness of the assets. Older people offer unique human capital that society insufficiently utilizes. They are seasoned, with a lifetime of experience, connections, the wisdom-associated abilities that enable recognition of problems that matter for the long-haul, abilities to handle complex problems, and the patience to develop solutions. It is possible that these assets exceed the current roles of older adults in the workplace. These assets could be better utilized in new roles designed to take advantage of them, and to be of particular value to employers.
  2. Awareness of myths. For instance, one persistent myth is that older workers displace younger workers. On the contrary, societies that employ older adults generate greater wealth and thus the ability to also hire the young. Further, research has shown that intergenerational teams are more productive than mono-generational teams. Another myth is that older workers are not productive. But this is not supported in the literature. Whether on the factory floor, as scientists in universities, or as volunteers, older workers are in fact quite productive.
  3. Awareness of goals associated with aging and designing work and volunteer opportunities to enable and meet them. Many older adults who have worked in manual labor no longer want or are able to do so as they age. Further, most older adults are interested in ensuring a better future, and seek a mixture of work-focused roles and opportunities to give back to society. Employers that can offer that mixture will be developing a new model for the concept of "shared value" and preparing employees, when they do retire, for the experience of rewarding and productive volunteer roles through which they can continue to contribute to their communities.
  4. Changes in workplace design and employment conditions to meet the needs of older adults. These would include more flexible hours and graded time commitments. Further, to maintain salaries at levels commensurate with skills, the US Medicare regulations should be changed so that people who are working can draw Medicare benefits, thus not requiring health insurance or just supplemental benefits.
  5. Changes in attitudes toward aging and older people. This must include older women, who are doubly invisible to society – based on both age and gender.

Maximizing our human capital

Hear Linda Fried share her ideas on how we can change our thinking to bring expectations and workplaces into line with 21st century realities.

Author: Linda Fried

About the author

Linda Fried
Dean of the Mailman School of Public Health and DeLamar Professor of Public Health, Columbia University Medical Center

Dr. Linda P. Fried is a leader in the fields of epidemiology and geriatrics who has dedicated her career to the science of healthy aging and creating the basis for a transition to a world where greater longevity benefits people of all ages. An internationally renowned scientist, she has done seminal work in defining frailty as a medical condition, illuminating its causes and the potential for prevention as keys to optimizing health for older adults.