Aging work force requiring businesses to rethink strategy, keep older workers

As America’s Baby Boomer work force ages and approaches retirement age, businesses face a challenge: How do you keep the most experienced workers in the labor force? 

At last Friday’s Southern Peninsula Summit at the Homer Senior Center, speaker Sandra Heffern, owner of Effective Health Design Enterprises in Anchorage, addressed that issue. Her talk had been made easier by a talk on the senior population done right before her by state demographer Eddie Hunsinger. (See related story, page 1 of the front section.)

“I love following the demographer because they prove up what we in the business community know are the trends,” Heffern said.

Heffern previously served as the chief executive officer of Ready Care, an in-home assisted living service and also had been program director for ASSETS, an organization that provides employment and living services for individuals with disabilities and/or mental illness.

In the United States there are about 76 million Baby Boomers, the population group born from 1944 to 1964. Following them are what’s called Generation X, born from 1965-1984, and the Millennials, the newest workforce, born from 1985.

About 68 percent of Baby Boomers remain in the work force, Heffern said. Even when they reach 65, about 20 percent of Alaskans keep working, Hunsinger said. While Generation X, now ages 29 to 48, has begun gaining experience, it’s not that big a group overall. 

In Homer, Baby Boomers make up the largest segment of the population, about 1,300 people. The percentage for the Kenai Peninsula is about the same.

“What it means for business is that group of people is reaching the magic 65 retirement age,” Heffern said. “What business is realizing is they need to keep that work force.”

Generation X isn’t a large enough work force and Millennials don’t yet have the experience, she said.

One strategy to keep seasoned and mature workers is something already used for working parents with young children who want to spend more time at home: flexible hours, job sharing, part-time work and working at home. 

“The employer is looking at more creative ways to keep people in the work force,” Heffern said.

Employers also need to look ahead and communicate with older workers to assess their future plans.

“Hopefully, as people are leaving, employers have taken the time to look at that knowledge drain that is happening,” Heffern said.

When older workers leave, you lose not just those people, but their knowledge and their relationship with the community and customers. 

As customers also age, they might feel more comfortable going into a business where there are some people like them.

Employers should listen to their aging workforce and should develop a plan to make the retirement transition over the next three or five years. 

One strategy is to partner older workers with the next generation, Heffern said. Involve older workers in training or mentoring.

“It engages that person who is going to retire, and they may not retire as soon as they thought,” she said. “It brings up that next generation. When that person comes into the job, they have that base, they have that foundation.”

Employers also should look at job descriptions that might put off older workers — phrasing that says “energetic, enthusiastic,” for example.

“We’re a valuable commodity. Employers are looking for employees,” she said. “They’re looking for the knowledge that they have. … The face of business is changing. We’re having to rethink.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at

Businesses need to rethink strategy 

as work force ages

• Look at flex time, working at home, job sharing
and part-time options to keep older workers

• Plan for older workers leaving

• Partner older and younger workers

• Don’t discourage older workers in job notices