Baby Boomer employees

The workforce of the future: Older and healthier

January 9, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

Either by choice or because of financial woes, people will work into their golden years. What happens to the workplace when seniors don't leave?

By Colleen Leahey, reporter

FORTUNE -- A man parks his bike and unbuckles his helmet to reveal baldness and salt-and-pepper eyebrows. A woman in orthopedic shoes makes her way into an office building, while another peers through her bifocal glasses at her smartphone, the font on the screen bumped up a few sizes for easier reading. No, this isn't an ad for Celebrex. This is a glimpse at the workforce of tomorrow.

The market crash of 2008 and the subsequent recession depleted the savings of many baby boomers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 13.2 million workers 65 and over will log office hours in 2022, up from about 7.3 million today. As aging Americans defer retirement -- either to restock retirement funds or because they expect to live longer and need to keep earning money -- an older workforce will take shape.

The office of tomorrow

But gawky walkers won't clutter offices. Futurist Sonia Arrison predicts that the elderly will be healthier than ever. Broken-down parts, she says, can be replaced "like a vintage car." And new drugs will temper the symptoms of many other afflictions -- arthritis and hypertension, for example -- enabling many people in their sixties and seventies to make the daily trek to an office or factory. Indeed, the gating factors for seniors who want to work may be mental limitations (age-related memory loss and more serious diseases such as Alzheimer's) more than physical ones.

With an older workforce comes big questions about how companies will handle health benefits. Bruce Richards, chief actuary in the health and benefits business at Mercer, a human resources consultancy, predicts that companies will look to alter the kinds of treatments they will cover and put more responsibility for payment on all their employees -- not just older workers. As for retirement savings plans, companies will continue to move away from traditional pension plans and offer all workers defined-contribution plans, a strategy that takes pressure off corporate earnings.

Companies will have to be creative about how they manage a workplace with staffs whose ages could span 60 years. But for many companies seniors will prove an asset. Drug chain CVS Caremark (CVS) is learning that many of its customers prefer to consult with older, more experienced pharmacists about health issues. To retain those valuable employees, the company has launched a "snowbird" program that lets them work up North in the summer and in the South for the winter.

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This article is from the January 16, 2012 issue of Fortune.


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