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Written Testimony of Sara J. Czaja Leonard M. Miller Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Director,
Center on Aging Director, Center for Research and Education on Aging and
Technology Enhancement (CREATE) University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

I would like to thank the Commission for this opportunity to discuss issues around stereotypes of older workers, particularly around older workers and new technologies. I am a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Director of the Center on Aging at the University of Miami School of Medicine. I also hold joint appointments in Industrial Engineering, Psychology and Neurology. In addition I am the Director of the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement, also know as CREATE.

Introduction

I would like to start by briefly describing CREATE, which is a multi-site Center that has been funded since 1999 by the National Institute on Aging. CREATE involves researchers at the University of Miami, Florida State University, Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois. The focus of CREATE is on older adults' interactions with technology systems in healthcare, home, and work settings. Our goal is to ensure that technology is both usable by and useful to older adults and that older adults can realize the benefits of technology. Thus, we have gathered and published extensive data on the willingness and ability of older people to use technology including workplace technologies. We also have examined issues related to training older adults and have written extensively on these topics including handbooks on design for older adults.

The Changing Landscape of Work

To provide some context for the remainder of my remarks I would like to review briefly the significant demographic and social changes that are shaping todays and tomorrow's workplace. One is that the workforce is aging. According to recent data from the U.S. Census, by 2050 about 19% of the workforce will be aged 65 or older - a 75 percent growth of the number of workers in this age group as compared to a 2 percent growth in individuals aged 25 -54 years. As the diversity of the U.S. population increases, the entire workforce, including older workers, is also becoming more diverse. Projections from the U.S. Census data indicate that in the U.S. the minority population is expected to increase to 56 percent by 2060. There will also be growth in older adults from minority groups, especially in the Hispanic population. Further, patterns of work and retirement are changing. It is no longer a "lock step process" - most workers making many more transitions throughout their working life and moving in and out of different work experiences.

At the same time that the workforce is aging and becoming more diverse, there are also dramatic changes in work structures and organizations, which include decentralized management structures, collaborative work arrangements and teamwork, and a greater emphasis on knowledge-based work and jobs that require advanced degrees or training. Technology is also becoming ubiquitous within work environments and the influx of technology is reshaping work processes, the content of jobs, where work is performed, and training strategies. Today, most workers use some form of technology and this trend will continue and technology will continue to change and in many cases become more sophisticated. These changes in the workplace have tremendous implications for workers, employers and organizations. On the worker side, these changes imply that workers of all ages will have to learn new skills continually and adapt to changes in job demands. Organizations and employers will need to develop strategies to accommodate older workers and to ensure that workers of all ages are provided with opportunities to update their skills to keep pace with changes in work technologies and job demands. This requires having a knowledge base about older workers and aging and work.

Myths and Realities About Older Workers

Unfortunately numerous negative stereotypes about older workers still exist that often prevent or have a negative impact on employment opportunities for older people. These stereotypes can also prevent organizations from realizing the wealth of positive assets, such as wisdom, experience, and reliability that older workers can bring to the table.

Common myths about older workers include the belief that all older people are alike, tend to be sick, and have higher rates of absenteeism. Older workers are also thought to be less productive than younger workers and less flexible or willing to adapt to changes in the workplace. In addition, older people are thought to be technophobic and unwilling or unable to learn to use new technologies. Further, it is often thought that they are less willing to participate in training programs and more costly to train.

These myths are largely unsubstantiated by findings from our research and that of others.

  1. We know that as a group, for a variety of factors, older people are extremely heterogeneous on a host of dimensions such as educational attainment, race/ethnicity/culture, living arrangements, health and physical and cognitive abilities.
  2. Aging is associated with changes in functioning such as changes in our sensory systems and cognition. These changes encompass both decline (i.e., processing speed) and positive development (i.e., knowledge and experience).
  3. Many age-related changes in function may be compensated for by experience or external/environmental supports (i.e. eye glasses, procedural cues or reminders).
  4. Aging is associated with plasticity - older people can learn and experience gains in function and skills. Older people can learn if they are provided with the appropriate training and sufficient practice and feedback during the learning process. Given the vast age differences in skills and experiences self-paced training protocols may be optimal for older adults.
  5. There is no substantial literature that indicates that job performance is lower among older adults and in fact there is extensive literature demonstrating that in fact performance improves with age. Further, older workers do not have higher rates of absenteeism or turnover. In contrast, they tend to be more reliable than younger workers.
  6. Although technology uptake tends to be lower among today's cohort of older adults, older adults are not technophobic and are willing to use technology systems and applications. However, they often have less confidence and less self-efficacy using technology than younger adults. We believe that this lower uptake and sometime lack of self-efficacy or confidence regarding ability to learn new technologies, are often the result of poor design of technology systems and applications and lack of appropriate training. Older adults are often not considered as a viable user group by designers of technology systems. Also, older adults are more willing to adopt technology if they perceive it as useful and holding some value.
  7. Older people can learn to use new technology. Within our CREATE Center our research has shown for example that even people in the later decades including the 70s. 80s & 90s with no prior technology experience can learn to use computers and software applications. We have also shown that older adults experience great gains in technology proficiency with continued experience.
  8. Unemployed older people who wish to return to work often confront lack of technology skills as a barrier. Unfortunately, within the workplace older workers are often bypassed in terms of training and retraining opportunities. Further, there are often limited opportunities in community settings that provide older adults with the training to gain the skills that they need.

Integrating Older Adults into Today's Work Environment

Maximizing the potential of older workers and their contribution to the workforce will require strategies to accommodate the skills, abilities and preferences. One important issue is of course recognizing the value of older workers and striving to match their skills and abilities with the demands of jobs and work environments. This requires both a workforce and workplace assessment to understand needs in worker skills and potential changes in jobs or the work environment to accommodate older people. These changes might include:

  1. Reducing the physical demands of jobs and making sure that workplace and environments adhere to existing ergonomic standards and available guidelines for older people. As noted, the CREATE team has handbooks available on these topics.
  2. Designing more flexible work schedules such as alternative work hours, shorter work weeks, or providing the ability to work from home for some portion of time.
  3. Accommodating competing family demands. Many middle-aged and older workers are involved in caregiving and need support for their caregiving activities.
  4. Ensuring that technology systems and applications are properly designed to ensure effective use by older workers whose perceptual, cognitive and psychomotor capabilities are likely to be undergoing normative age-related changes. If these changes are not considered older workers may not adopt technology that has the potential to improve efficiency and productivity, or if it is adopted, it may not be used to the fullest extent and have the desired benefit due to usability issues. There are numerous design guidelines available.
  5. Ensuring the availability of training and technical support. In today's work environment with the continual diffusion of new technologies training and retraining of older workers is critical to organizational effectiveness. There are also guidelines available (authored in fact by members of the CREATE team) regarding design of training programs for older adults. This may involve partnering with community agencies to provide venues for job related training. It should also involve partnerships between industry and the government to support worker-training programs.

With respect to training, technology is also influencing how training is conducted and there is currently a large emphasis on "e-learning" or technology-mediated learning. There is also an increased emphasis on workers assuming responsibility for continuous learning. This also places an emphasis on online training arrangements. This is an area ripe for research as the implications for older workers is not well understood.

Overall, addressing usability barriers for technology adoption, including attitudinal, social/institutional, and physical, is central to encouraging and enabling older workers to prolong productive and satisfying labor force participation. In addition, training support must be available and designed to accommodate older adults. If technology is designed properly and accompanied by appropriate training it can improve the health, safety, productivity, and longevity of an aging workforce.