What is Productive Aging?

Productive aging is an approach that emphasizes the positive aspects of growing older. It recognizes how individuals can make important contributions to their own lives, their communities, organizations, and society. In the context of work, productive aging involves providing a safe and healthy work environment for everyone. It uses comprehensive strategies that allow workers to function optimally at all ages. The National Center for Productive Aging and Work (NCPAW)’s approach to productive aging highlights:

  • The importance of the work environment.
  • Organizational policies, programs, and strategies designed to meet the changing needs of workers across their lifespans.

Four attributes of our approach to productive aging

A Life-Span Perspective

A life-span perspective considers the patterns of biological, cognitive, and social changes that occur from the first day of work to the last. This perspective views aging as an adaptive and dynamic process. The environment can also influence this process. As a result, the scope of productive aging includes workers of all age groups. It does not refer solely to “older workers.” Further, changes associated with aging will be different from person to person. Other elements of a life-span perspective include:

  • The aging process is multidirectional and involves both losses and gains. As workers age, some aspects of functioning may decline, while others may improve or stay the same. For example, physical stamina slowly decreases with age, but accrued knowledge or “wisdom” tends to increase. These different “trajectories of change” are important to understand in designing a workplace where all workers can thrive.
  • The aging process is characterized by plasticity. The term plasticity refers to the potential to change in response to one’s experiences. Research suggests that specific activities can affect the rate of change for some abilities. For example, regular exercise affects physical functioning. Research also shows the neuroplasticity of the brain and its ability to change with experience over time.
  • The aging process is multi-dimensional. Three basic dimensions of the aging process are biological, cognitive, and socio-emotional. Each dimension has many sub-components that interact with the other two dimensions. They are also each influenced by the environment. All three dimensions are important to consider when designing a work environment that encourages productive aging.
  • The aging process is contextual. Changes that occur as workers age do not take place in a vacuum. Some important contextual settings are families, friendships, community, workplace, and society. In the workplace, each of these can all play an important role in productive aging:
    • The nature of work and its structure.
    • The type of workplace relationships an individual develops.
    • Specific work-related events, like career progression, avoidance of disability, and retirement.
    • Negative ageist beliefs that may interfere with efforts to promote and support productive aging.

Comprehensive and Integrated Strategies

The impact of aging on individuals and organizations is complex and influenced by work and non-work factors. Programs or interventions to improve productive aging need to be both multi-dimensional and well-coordinated. Two examples of approaches that are directly applicable to productive aging are Work Ability and Total Worker Health®.

Work Ability refers to a worker’s capacity to continue working in their current job. It considers work demands and available resources. Work demands include aspects of the work environment such as physical characteristics, work organization, and supervision. Resources include health, functional abilities, job skills, and family/community support. Strategies to maintain or improve work ability focus on four basic areas:

  • Working Conditions: Refers to the physical conditions of the work environment. Includes ergonomics, industrial hygiene, and safety
  • Employee Health: Includes individuals’ health factors and work factors that contribute to employees’ safety, health, and well-being
  • Professional Skills: Maintaining and developing job-related knowledge, skills, and competence
  • Psychosocial Factors: Aspects of work that affect how employees perceive, experience, and react to:
    • Organizational policies and practices
    • How their work is designed
    • Inter-personal relationships at work (e.g., work arrangements and flexibility, social support, and organizational culture and climate)

A Work Ability approach should assess each of these areas at the organizational and worker levels. Programs or interventions should simultaneously:

  • Target several of the factors above.
  • Involve careful planning, implementation, and long-term follow-up.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health developed the Total Worker Health (TWH) approach. It integrates workplace interventions that protect workers’ safety and health with activities that advance their overall well-being. A TWH approach comprehensively addresses workplace systems. These systems include those relevant to safety, the control of psychosocial hazards and exposures, and the organization of work.

Both TWH and Work Ability provide useful frameworks for productive aging. The emphasis rests on developing sustainable, well-coordinated strategies. These strategies should span several different dimensions of safety and health, including factors outside of the workplace. These frameworks apply to all age groups and intend to benefit workers of all ages.

Outcomes that Recognize the Priorities of Both Workers and Organizations

A productive aging approach targets outcomes that are important to workers and to organizations. It comes with the understanding that each can influence the other. Outcomes can range from improving safety and well-being (worker-centered) to reducing healthcare costs and maintaining job performance (organization-centered).

The Table below presents selected outcomes that are either “worker-centered” or “organization-centered.” Some of the outcomes are very similar for the two categories. For example, both refer to the safety and health of workers. Whereas other outcomes tend to reflect the specific needs and priorities of each category.

selected outcomes
Worker-Centered Outcomes left right bidirectional arrow Organization-Centered Outcomes
Maintenance of individual physical and mental health Lower health care costs
Safe work environment Reduced workplace injuries, disability, and worker’s compensation costs
High level of job satisfaction Low turnover and absenteeism
Ability to make contribution to the organization Maintenance or improvement in overall productivity of workforce
Ability to meet needs outside of work Recruitment and retention of experienced workers
Fair treatment and respect Transfer of expertise between generations

The bidirectional arrow in the middle reflects that changes in either of these two columns can affect the other. For example, studies on worker well-being have consistently found that improving this “worker-centered” outcome is associated with:

  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Higher productivity
  • Fewer reported workplace injuries

Similarly, organizations that facilitate knowledge transfer between older and younger workers through mentoring and reverse mentoring programs may create:

  • More resources to invest in worker well-being programs and injury prevention
  • Higher productivity

This suggests that both worker-centered and organization-centered outcomes are useful targets in efforts to encourage productive aging. Focusing on both categories can contribute to a culture of health that can sustain improvements over time.

Work Culture that Supports Age Diversity

In organizations today, there may be individuals in their teens through 70s (or older) working alongside one another. This unprecedented level of age diversity is the product of many factors. For example, more workers are staying in the workforce longer. Although often subtle, age-related differences can include attitudes toward work and supervision, communication style, training needs, and work habits.

It is important to note that there can also be significant differences within a group of similarly aged people, however. Relying on broad categories, like generations, risks oversimplification and falsely attributing differences to a particular age group. It can also be difficult to separate effects from:

  • Age
  • Events happening in the broader social context
  • Other changes that occur over time at work, like career progression

The fact that work-related values and behaviors can vary both within and between age groups has important implications for organizations when it comes to:

  • Training
  • Worker motivation
  • Use of technology
  • Recruitment
  • Leadership
  • Communication strategies
  • Teamwork

Learning to manage these differences and build upon the unique strengths of workers of all ages helps to create an inclusive workplace culture that contributes to productive aging.

In terms of productive aging, creating a supportive culture involves:

  • Better understanding of the age composition of your workforce
  • Facilitating regular discussion about generational and age diversity issues
  • Developing a set of programs and policies that are broad enough to address the needs of all workers throughout their working life. For example, family leave policies that appeal to both younger and older workers
  • Encouraging positive interactions between different age cohorts. For example, mentoring and reverse mentoring programs

A fundamental goal of this culture should be to recognize and use the unique skills, knowledge, and perspectives of workers in all age groups.