Issues, Impacts, and Implications of an Aging Workforce

Jeffrey Tamburo April 26, 2020

Differences challenge assumptions.Anne Wilson Schaef

What comes to mind when you think about getting older? Often it is assumed that aging brings a host of health problems and limitations. Yet, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (2014), less than one quarter of US adults over age 65 identified as having only “fair” or “poor” health. Although some experience health declines with age, in many ways older workers are among the most skilled and productive employees, as evidenced by a survey of 2,500 human resource managers. The survey identified the top advantages of older workers as having greater work experience, knowledge and skills; greater maturity and professionalism; a stronger work ethic; being more reliable and loyal; and experiencing less turnover (SHRM, 2002).

The Silver Tsunami

The 78 million Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 comprise such a large group that there are more workers in their fifties and sixties on the job than ever before (Silverstein, 2008). As a result of what has been called a Silver Tsunami, the numbers of workers ages 55 and older is projected to nearly double during the time period 2000-2020. Consequently, 1 out of 4 workers are projected to be over age 55 by the year 2020, a striking demographic shift in the labor force (Toossi, 2012). Given that disability prevalence increases with age, and that the incidence of disability doubles between the ages 40–55 (American Community Survey, 2010), there are and will continue to be more people in the workforce living with a disability.

Why Is the Workforce Aging?

A confluence of factors have contributed to the aging of the American workforce:

  • Financial need: A 2015 U.S. Government Accountability Office analysis found that among households with members aged 55 or older, nearly 29% have neither retirement savings nor a traditional pension plan. These individuals have not had a significant increase in wages, some have student loans and other debt, and many continue to struggle financially. Due to the downturn in the economy a few years ago, many older workers who were expecting to retire found themselves unable to do so because of an insufficient retirement nest egg. In addition, skyrocketing health care costs further complicate the issue, forcing many people to work just to keep health insurance. Moreoverresearch by the Government Accountability Office consistently shows that people aged 55 to 64 are less confident about their retirement and plan to work longer to afford retirement.
  • Increased longevity and function: People are living longer, and are healthier than ever before. Case in point—in 1960 the life expectancy for US women was 73, and for men it was 66. A 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found life expectancy for females is 81 years and for males it is 76 years (Kochanek, Arias & Bastian, 2016).
  • Talent shortage: As Baby Boomers age at work and leave for retirement, they are followed by a substantially smaller younger generation, the Baby Bust of 1965–1976 (Silverstein, 2008). Consequently, older workers increasingly are being asked to stay on the job, either to fill a skills gap or to mentor younger workers.
  • Enjoy work and productivity: Many people state that they enjoy the social benefits of work and the feeling of being productive (SHRM, 2014 Survey).

In short, there are several reasons why the workforce is aging.

Employment Laws Related to Older Workers

All older workers, whether or not they have a disability, need be familiar with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967. This law forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older in a number of key areas of employment.

Older workers with disabilities should also be aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA, which was signed into law in 1990, is one of the most comprehensive pieces of US civil rights legislation. It prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities, of all ages, have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life. Title I of the ADA covers employment. To receive protections under the ADA, one must be a qualified individual. This means at least one of the following criteria must be met:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity
  • Has a record of an impairment
  • Or is regarded as having an impairment

Society often maintains a particular image of what disability “looks like.” A Google search on “disability” brings up images of people in wheelchairs, of accessibility signage, and of other visible, or obvious, disabilities. Yet the truth is that many disabilities are not obvious. For example, chronic diseases such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, and obesity disproportionately affect older adults and are associated with disability, diminished quality of life, and increased costs for health care and long-term care. About 80% of adults over age 65 have at least one chronic condition, and 50% have at least two (CDC, 2009). In addition the CDC estimates that 20% of people aged 55 years or older experience some type of mental health issue, with the most common conditions being anxiety, severe cognitive impairment, and mood disorders such as depression or bipolar disorder. Most of these disabilities are “invisible”, and often individuals with these types of conditions do not realize that they may qualify for protections under the ADA. 

An increasing number of charges filed under the ADA are filed by older workers. In 1993, 14% of all ADA charges were filed by individuals aged 55 and over; in 2010 that number increased to 29% of total ADA charges. Although this likely is reflective of the changing demographics—with an increase in older workers one would expect a corresponding increase in the number of ADA charges filed--it is important to note that there is also an increase in ADA charges citing failure to provide reasonable accommodation (Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, calculation based on EEOC IMS data). Since reasonable accommodation is one of the hallmarks of the ADA, an increase in cases about reasonable accommodation suggests that employers may not be doing enough to provide workplace accommodations for older workers.

Reasonable Accommodation and Older Americans

A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. The ADA requires employers to offer reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals by engaging in an interactive process with the job seeker or employee upon disclosure of a qualifying disability. Accommodations may be requested and/or needed during any phase the employment process, from the application/interview phase to allowing for equal benefit and privileges of employment, once hired. For older workers with disabilities, reasonable, and often inexpensive and simple, workplace accommodations can promote job retention.  Examples of reasonable accommodations for older workers include (JAN, 2015):

  • Accessible parking spaces
  • Screen magnification software
  • Flexible scheduling due to stamina issues or the effects of medications
  • Periodic rest breaks away from the workstation
  • Implementation of text messaging for communication
  • Part-time work schedules
  • Sit-stand desk
  • Time off for medical treatment

Beyond aiding an individual employee, workplace accommodations contribute to an inclusive workforce by enabling workers with disabilities to perform essential job functions. Organizations can further promote disability inclusiveness through activities such as providing training to managers, building strategies and support systems for providing accommodations, reaching out to local resources for assistance in making accommodations, and ensuring that job descriptions are accurate and properly identify essential functions of a position (von Schrader, Malzer, Erickson and Bruyère, 2013).


There is an increasing number of older workers, with and without disabilities, in the US workforce. They continue to work for a myriad of reasons, and they will represent an important resource as employers seek to fill jobs in the years ahead. Employers who create inclusive workplaces that consider the needs of older workers will be able to attract and retain the best workers.

For more information on aging and the ADA, check out the following:


American Community Survey, (2010). Public Use Microdata Samples (PUMS). Calculations by Cornell University, Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (2009). Healthy Aging: Improving and Extending Quality of Life among Older Americans. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 

Kochanek, K. D., Arias, E., & Bastian, B. A. (2016). The effect of changes in selected age-specific causes of death on non-Hispanic white life expectancy between 2000 and 2014. Heart disease1, 0-581.

Loy, B. (2015). Job Accommodation Network. Accommodation and Compliance Series. Employees Who Are Aging.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. SHRM survey findings: The aging workforce—Recruitment and retention (2015). Retrieved from on December 15, 2016.

Silverstein, M. (2008). Meeting the challenges of an aging populationAmerican Journal of Industrial Medicine51(10), 269–280.

Toossi, M. (2012). Labor force projections to 2020: a more slowly growing workforce. Monthly Lab. Rev.135, 43. Retrieved from Retrieved from on December 15, 2016.

United States Government Accountability Office (May 2015). Retirement security: Most Households Approaching Retirement Have Low Savings.  GAO-15-419. Retrieved from on December 15, 2016.

von Schrader, S., Bruyere, S., Malzer, V. B., & Erickson, W. (2013). Absence and disability management practices for an aging workforce.