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Improved With Age

By Nancy Post, MAc, PhD

Recently, I came to a stunning realization. The furniture from my childhood home, bought by my parents after they married in 1951, is considered antique. Herman Miller tables, a sideboard and china cabinet, somewhat scratched and stained, are now worth more because they have crossed a threshold of maturity.
No one would think to put these beautiful walnut pieces into a yard sale. You want to show them off, bring out their essence, give them the premier place in your house. The signs of use give them character, distinction and uniqueness.

Appreciation of furniture is one of the few phenomena in modern American life by which we take pleasure in aging. Thus, there are great lessons to be learned, particularly in the American workplace and specifically among leaders.

First, let's look at trends. In 2009, about 79 million of America's roughly 307 million people were between 45 and 65 years of age; approximately 26 percent of the overall population. (U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Census Bureau) In 1990, there were 18.4 million American workers over the age of 55. The projection is that by 2015, this number will grow to more than 32 million people. (July 1, 2009, Census Bureau) Thus, in less than 20 years, the total number of employed people over the age of 55 will almost double. Suppose that about 5 percent of the total employed population are leaders; by 2015, we can expect more than 1.6 million American leaders over the age of 55! Since most people have greater health needs as they age, this means we will have more leaders with health issues in 2015 than 20 years ago.

This phenomena is the result of the baby boom - the huge burst of babies born between 1946 and 1964. As the 80 million baby boomers mature, how will this enormous segment of the population affect the work force? How will they, as older workers, shape the needs, responses and patterns of employment? And how will their increased needs for health care effect how the workplace responds to illness? How will they handle the needs for care of their parents who are also living longer?

My supposition is that, as leaders age and have more frequent and severe complications of their own health, they will become sensitized to the health needs of others. I hope their increased understanding will change workplaces to become more responsive and humane, particularly to valued employees who develop chronic illness or to employees who must care for family members.

The demographics aren't the only variable changing the workplace. Chronic disease itself has changed. Thirty years ago, heart disease, cancer and diabetes were considered critical, not chronic diseases - often considered the precursor to early death. Now they are manageable diseases, allowing people to live and work longer with serious problems.

The modern workplace, however, is designed for demographics from the past. The old paradigm believed that loss of health is caused by germs, and illness is temporary and short term. Consequently, when you get sick, you take one of 10 allocated sick days. It's simple; illnesses or elder care exceeding 10 days led you to beg, borrow and steal your vacation days, as well as use up your sick days. As a nod to prevention, progressive companies batch sick and vacation days into a pool which can be used for "wellness" or "mental health days." But this also is a euphemism for "recovery" days when people are too stressed, exhausted or anxious to work productively. Caregivers need recovery time, but often use their allocated time off to care for others, supporting a cycle of depletion that seems endless. Regardless of the flexibility of time off, you will be considered a liability to your organization if you exceed the allocated amount.

So, what if you have cancer, need surgery (which requires recovery time), chemotherapy (requiring recovery time), acupuncture and herbs to recover your energy (appointments that are likely to be during the day during the week for months during and after surgery and chemotherapy), and possibly post- traumatic stress disorder treatment (to recover your sense of self when you realize you have a life-threatening disease), which means more appointments away from work?

Frankly, your organization has no way to deal with you. Workplaces aren't designed for people with chronic illnesses, nor to support caregivers, even though our working population is aging. The American Cancer Association's data shows that 78 percent of cancer is diagnosed in people 55 and older. (Cancer Facts and Figures, 2010) A portion of those 1.6 million American leaders in 2015 certainly will have that diagnosis and struggle with its implications. Recently, I advised one such senior executive who has cancer. Sally runs a division of an international finance firm, to which she has devoted 19 years of her life. She was the voice of ethics in her organization during the banking crisis despite the risk to her job. Later in 2008, she was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. An example to her three children, she has never smoked, exercises regularly and maintains artistic hobbies despite the pressures of work.

After initial surgery, Sally endured 12 weeks of chemotherapy. This over-extended her sick leave and vacation time, but her boss allowed for a partially paid leave of absence during which she was expected to work part time. "I was so exhausted during that chemotherapy that I couldn't even stand. I'd use a speaker phone, and would lie down on the floor and run meetings with colleagues from Japan, England, France and Germany."

From the floor to three continents, from the pinnacle of her career to ground zero. I was hearing secrets she would never tell people at work. Multinational corporate executives pride themselves on being flawless: impeccable, perfectly coiffed, interminably well-spoken, polite, somewhat vague, yet somehow affable and trained to be simultaneously pleasing and hard. They use words that deny imperfection. "Problems" are reframed as "challenges." "Conflicts" are considered "debate points." When someone screws up, it's called "poor performance" because, above all, they are expected to perform. Not like trained monkeys who mimic the act of play, but like diplomats who act so well that acting appears normal.

Sally understood that time off was permitted as long as her work was done. Part-time work helped her retain some dignity (particularly when her hair fell out.) To adapt to less energy, she avoided non-essential aspects of the job, focusing on priorities. Later in the year, her boss gave her a lower performance rating (and less of a bonus) for reduced output in those areas. Cancer took her energy and her bonus.

Now, as her company reorganizes for the fourth time in eight years, her job is being eliminated. As she applies for another position, she feels less secure. "I don't have confidence that anyone wants me. I can't leave the company because if anyone finds out I have cancer and I need more treatment, I'll get fired. How will I support my family?"

There are answers that are both practical and humane. We know Chinese medicine is invaluable in managing and often improving the health of people with chronic diseases. It's high time employee assistance programs and health insurance universally covered workers for treatment and prevention using Chinese medicine. Workplace productivity and clinical outcomes would both improve.

Dr. Joseph Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, has other advice, including: personalize compensation and benefits (assuming one size doesn't fit everyone at any stage of life or illness); treat the work force as a care force (assuming people will need support to support others); and redesign the workplace. (Disruptive Demographics: Global Aging, Technology and Innovation, March 6, 2010)

Sixty years after my parents bought their first furniture, manufacturer Herman Miller is developing products for older workers. Older office staff will require redesigned workstations that provide optimal accessibility and appropriate physical design to manage the fatigue, lower back pain, vision impairment and other chronic problems often associated with mid- and later-life.

One organization is responding to an aging work force, increasing health and productivity. Perhaps some of the 1.6 million leaders will devise ways to support valued employees with chronic conditions, showing the character of fine antiques, rather than focusing on scratches.