In June 2007, German automaker BMW was faced with an aging work force and declining productivity at its factory in Dingolfing, Germany. Older workers tended to call in sick for longer stretches, and they had to work harder to keep up with output demands.
The company responded with an innovative experiment that has been hailed as a prototype for how to keep an aging work force both happy and productive. As written up in a case study in the Harvard Business Review, BMW put a team of older workers (average age 47) on a pilot line and let them make whatever changes they needed to keep productivity high.
The workers came up with 70 improvements, from using bigger type on computer monitors to installing wooden floors that were easier on aging knees. They asked for, and got, adjustable worktables, orthopedic footwear and tools with larger handles. BMW also rotated workers off the most physically stressful jobs for part of each day, and installed adjustable chairs enabling workers to sit for at least part of their jobs.
The result: Productivity rose 7 percent in one year, equaling that of younger workers. Absenteeism on the pilot line dropped to 2 percent, below the plant average, and the line achieved zero defects. BMW was so happy with the results that it has designed followup projects in its other factories, including its sole U.S. assembly plant, in Spartanburg, S.C.
Remarkably, the entire range of changes at Dingolfing cost BMW only about $50,000 in equipment and training.
Tim Wintermute, executive director of the Detroit-based Luella Hannan Memorial Foundation, which operates programs for seniors, said the BMW example shines as proof that older workers still can cut it in the modern workplace — that is, if companies and society as a whole can find ways to adjust.
"Aging is not a disease. It's a success," he said. An aging population results naturally from a nation's economic development, which reduces birthrates and leads to better medical care.
"Now we have to adapt our society and our workplace to that new reality," Wintermute said.
Accommodating older workers is growing more crucial as an aging U.S. population faces a looming crisis in paying for retirement. With savings depleted, pension plans collapsing and home equity evaporating, millions of Americans are working well into their anticipated retirement years.
In 1985, fewer than 11 percent of people 65 and older remained in the work force; today, the figure is about 16 percent, and it's expected to rise to 22 percent by 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
There are, of course, many vibrant examples of older people still at the top of their form, such as actor and director Clint Eastwood, 80, and ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, 70. Sadly, not every older worker enjoys an innovative employer like BMW.
Michael Pitt, a Royal Oak, Mich., attorney who has sued Detroit automakers over age discrimination cases, said Eastwood and Starr are not typical.
"Those people, if they worked for any of the big outfits in this town, they would be long gone," Pitt said.
The problems facing older workers can get worse if a senior worker is not hanging on to a long-held job but trying to start over after being downsized.
"Once older people are laid off, it's much, much longer to get a job," Wintermute said.
Jacqueline Morrison, the AARP's interim director for Michigan, agreed that prejudice against older workers can be damaging.
"Age discrimination is still real," she said. "In some cases you may be facing an interviewer who's the age of your son or grandson." But she said that older workers also need to get real about updating their skills to meet today's needs.
The growing number of older workers is one reason why the group formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons changed its name in 1999 to just the AARP.
"Over 60 percent of our members remain in the workplace," said Morrison.
Accommodating older workers means managers must make their workplaces safer. Slips and falls pose a greater danger, so floors cannot be left wet and spills must be promptly cleaned up.
But, as BMW found, a senior-friendly environment also can mean better lighting and adjustable work areas that benefit all.
One company actively recruiting older workers is CVS Caremark, operator of pharmacies nationwide. The chain has increased its percentage of employees age 50 and older from 7 percent in the early 1990s to more than 18 percent today. David Casey, vice president and diversity officer, said many pharmacy customers are seniors themselves, and they like to see someone similar behind the counter.
"We want to make sure we have a work force that reflects what's going on in the broader population, and the mature worker talent pool is definitely a part of that," he said. "It's not just a feel-good. . . . It ties very much into our business model."
Among its other programs, CVS Caremark offers its employees a snowbird plan, which lets employees transfer to a different pharmacy on a seasonal basis. More than 1,000 employees, most of them age 50 and older, take advantage of it, the company said, with the majority of them migrating from stores on the East Coast to stores in Florida for the winter.
One older CVS worker is Mario Palliola, who at 71 leads a team of pharmacists in Spencer, Mass. Palliola chose to keep working past 65 to pay his mortgage and because his wife, Kathy, who is several years younger, still needed his health benefits. But job satisfaction remains a key motivator.
"I feel like I'm a value to the community," Palliola said this month. "The personal satisfaction and the reward I get out of helping people makes me feel good, makes me feel like I want to come to work every day for a reason."
One answer to the problem of getting a job after 50 is for older workers to start their own companies. A surprising number try.
Randal Charlton, at age 70 the executive director of the TechTown business incubator in Detroit, said 33 percent of the would-be entrepreneurs who have attended TechTown's Fast Trac to the Future training sessions have been 46 or older, and 11 percent have been 56 or older.
"The profile of the entrepreneur is not what you would expect," Charlton said. "It is not the geek living on ramen noodles in a college dorm."