HR Administration

Thomas DeRosa Interview: Envisioning the Workforce in 2100

By Rick Bell

Mar. 16, 2016

Thomas DeRosa is CEO and director of Welltower Inc., an S&P 500 companybased in Toledo, Ohio. DeRosa also is governor of the World Economic Forum and this year joined the “What If You Are Still Alive in 2100?” panel, which put forth the concept that companies should open up daycare centers for workers’ elderly parents, among others. Workforce editorial director Rick Bell caught up with DeRosa regarding an aging workforce via email.

Thomas DeRosa June 2016

Workforce: ‘What if You Are Still Alive in 2100?’ is a pretty mind-blowing topic, given we’re still in the teens decade. What would you expect as a senior living at the turn of the century?

Thomas DeRosa: Personally, I’m in good health and with today’s medical advances, I can expect to live into my ‘teens.’ As the number of people globally aged 80 and above grows exponentially and scientists continue to push the boundaries of the human lifespan, we have to grapple with the reality of the impact of aging on our bodies and our minds.

I am a strong believer that as long as a person has a strong and sharp mind and willingness and ability to contribute to the workforce, he or she should not be discriminated or confined by their age. And people’s attitudes toward work are changing. I am certainly planning to work into my 70s and 80s.

I have seen other research that one-third of baby boomers want to continue working part-time well into their retirement years. We don’t need to wait until 2100 to see the changes in the labor market. Labor Department projections show that in 1992, 1 in 12 women worked past the age of 65. That number is now around 1 in 7. By 2024, it will increase to almost 1 in 5, or more than 6 million workers.

WF: You’ve spoken passionately and thoughtfully regarding the aging population. How will this translate to the business world? You’ve also talked about employees bringing elderly parents or family members to work, much like a child care center. Can this really work? Should our future business leaders consider the fact they may be managing employees in their 80s and 90s?

DeRosa: The experience and wisdom that many individuals accumulate during their professional careers can be an added benefit to a business or a public sector organization. Look at the U.S. Supreme Court for example — the average age of the justices is 78 — significantly older than the retirement age. At the same time, those are some of the most brilliant individuals I know of.

Both private and public sectors will need to look at how they adapt the marketplace to include more seniors with no cognitive constraints, but possibly some physical ones, in the workforce. It may mean different things for different businesses: making sure that offices are easily accessible or HR systems reflect different needs of the employee spectrum.

We can think of simple solutions — such as having nap rooms in the offices to allow older colleagues to take a short rest break during the day. Some of the older employees will be able to recharge this way, contributing to their wellness and ultimately to the company’s productivity. Ultimately, employee wellness is the common denominator.

We are putting a lot of emphasis today on the sustainability of our environment, but we need to put more focus on sustainability of the people.There are some smart lessons we can learn and adapt from our kindergartens and schools that put rest periods as central to the well-being of our children. It is also common in schools today to have a school nurse on site — perhaps a company of the 21st century can translate this to a wellness professional who can advise the employees on any minor health questions or concerns and hold periodic health and wellness seminars.

Another element that is critically important is food. There is a direct correlation between nutrition and the work abilities of employees. A recent Brigham Young University study showed that employees who eat healthy all day long were 25 percent more likely to have higher job performance, while those who eat five or more servings of fruit and vegetables at least four times a week were 20 percent more likely to be more productive.

Companies that provide catering solutions to their employees can adapt the menus to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables or replace sugar with healthier alternatives. Companies that don’t provide food options can make sure that they offer healthy snacks or provide other recommendations and options.

WF: The so-called ‘sandwich generation’ is faced with caring for elderly parents as well as children. What can employers do to assist them? 

DeRosa: I certainly agree and, as life expectancy increases, the sandwich generation will be facing even more constraints. HR teams will need to look at solutions that cater to different employee challenges — flexible time off or telecommuting to allow a person to take care of an ailing loved one, young or old; providing information and resources about appropriate facilities and much more.

WF: The employee life cycle is basically, start working in your 20s, then retire in your early 60s to make room for the next generation. Is this still viable as we progress in this century?

DeRosa: I don’t think that this model is valid today. We are looking at increased lifespan and increased productivity for many individuals, which calls for a new career model. Perhaps, contrary to the existing societal expectation of young people joining the workforce immediately after college in their early 20s, we can envision them embarking on a few years of public service and volunteering [domestically and around the world], allowing them to grow professionally and give back to the society. Taking part in programs like the Peace Corps or Edu Corps and then beginning the more formal part of their career in their 30s can account for more interesting and balanced professional life.

WF: What are the issues facing government to help legislate for an aging workforce?
DeRosa: The issue is broader than just the government or the private sector; it has to do more with a societal stigma against employing older people. As we are looking at longer lifespans, the advent of new health care and technology solutions, people should and will be working longer, as long as they are cognitively able. We should shift away from the ‘age 67 retirement’ mentality and have a broader and more comprehensive dialogue about ways to incentivize both public and private sector to keep/employ older individuals who may contribute a great deal to their organizations.

WF: We hear so much about workplace wellness programs. How will they need to evolve as the workforce ages?

DeRosa: We need to put a strong emphasis on the wellbeing of the employee, especially as the lines between home and work become more blurred. People are a lot more connected these days — working longer hours — the 9-to-5 cycle is certainly disrupted. There are new ways that should be explored to take a better advantage of the new solutions of the ‘gig economy’ — having a subscription on healthy food delivery or a shared car service. Having a wellness coach provide resources and information on healthier living or guest yoga and motion instructors come into the office once a week can provide significant productivity and employee morale benefits for people of all ages.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email editors@workforce.com.

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