Managing an Aging Workforce


Researchers at Georgetown University predict that the U.S. economy will face a shortage of 5 million workers with the necessary education and training by 2020.1

Shiftwork & Aging Workers

For shiftwork operations with older workforces, the three critical questions:
  1. Is our operation facing an impending labor shortage?
  2. How do we retain our highly-skilled senior workers?
  3. If we retain our senior workers, what safeguards must be employed?

Impending Labor Shortage

For shiftwork operations that depend on senior workers, it’s a good idea to strategize a solution for the potential labor shortage in advance. Your operation can:
  1. Space out multiple retirements over a period of years
  2. Implement training programs for more junior employees
  3. Encourage senior workers to delay retirement

Shift Work, Aging, and Safety

A common misconception among shiftwork operations is that older workers develop more problems with shiftwork as they age.

In a review of research that focused on the effect of age on the sleep, fatigue, performance, accident rates and health of shiftworkers, the findings were mixed:

Two studies reported more problems in older people, four studies reported opposite results, while in five studies no significant age-shift work interaction was observed. From across-shift comparisons (six studies), it was deduced that older compared with younger workers have more sleep problems with night shifts, while the opposite is true for morning shifts. This review did find some differences between older and younger workers, but did not find evidence for the suggestion of more shift work problems in older workers.2

Sleep and Aging

Sleep itself has been found to be directly affected by age. With age, it becomes harder to fall asleep, stay asleep, and achieve restorative amounts of sleep.

On a related note - our circadian rhythms begin to slowly shift backwards as we get older, normally beginning in our early twenties. This means that throughout our lifetime, we progressively wake up and go to bed earlier and earlier. For some people, the natural morning wake-up time can change by as much as two hours throughout their lifetime. This increase in “morningness” (i.e. earlier wake-up time) can make it harder for shiftworkers to sleep during the daytime.

Along with increased morningness, circadian rhythms become less flexible with age. Coping with shift changes can become more difficult with age, as it takes longer to adjust to working at night after several days off. However, as previously mentioned, aging doesn’t necessarily result in additional problems with shiftwork.


  1. Allie Bidwell, “Report: Economy Will Face Shortage of 5 Million Workers in 2020” U.S News and World Report, July 8, 2013
  2. Blok MM and de Looze MP. “What is the evidence for less shift work tolerance in older workers?” Ergonomics. 2011 Mar;54(3):221-32

Additional Info

  • References:

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