Policy makers and the public have expressed concern about the adequacy of Medicare and Social Security trust funds, mechanisms for retirement savings, and the need for long-term care. Far less attention has been paid to the health and safety needs of older Americans.
At the request of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the National Institute for Aging, the Archstone Foundation, and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Research Council organized a study of the health and safety needs of older workers. The study was directed to:
define and understand the size, composition, and other dimensions of the older adult workforce over the next 20–30 years, including the changing nature of work and its implications for workers over the age of 50;
identify the range of policy and research issues that should be addressed over the coming decade regarding the health and safety of older workers, including the effects, if any, of inappropriate working conditions on working capacities and occupational injuries and the effects of longer working lifetimes on health; and
identify relationships between retirement patterns and these characteristics of the older adult workforce and of their jobs.
We need more information about the factors that influence work decisions at older ages; interactions between work and the aging process; ethnicity; socioeconomic status; gender-related differences in work and retirement patterns, and effective ways to adapt the workplace to meet the needs of an aging workforce. We also need a clearer understanding of what social policies would best support the safe and productive employment of an older workforce, and what research is most needed to guide policy decisions. Too many commonly held beliefs concerning the capabilities of older workers are either incorrect or based on inadequate data. For example, it is popularly believed that older workers are less productive, more rigid in their thinking, and less worth the investment for training in new skills than their younger counterparts in the workplace. Since inaccurate ideas create major consequences for hiring, retaining, managing, and rewarding older workers, it is important to provide the factual basis for such conclusions and to identify gaps in our knowledge that need to be filled.