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A 60-Year-Old in a 20-Year-Old’s Workspace

Let’s face it: Today’s office isn’t exactly designed with the needs of older workers in mind. We’re not even talking about the needs of people with physical limitations, here, either. Even super-fit 60-year-olds — the kind that kick your behind in spin class and leave you wondering if you still have time to look like them when you grow up — will find many aspects of the modern office space daunting.

Here are a few “innovations” that seem less than revolutionary for mature employees:

1. Standing desks.
Standing desks, and their more athletic cousins, treadmill desks, are gaining in popularity, and for a good reason. Blogs have been buzzing all year with the news that too much sitting can kill you. Still, what if you already have back or hip problems, and can’t stand up for eight hours a day?

2. Open offices.
More common than the standing desk, and perhaps destined to take over the American workplace, the open plan office is here to stay. This is bad news for older employees, who tend to prefer more privacy.

3. Hot desking.

Hot desking is a slick term for a thing many of us having been doing at our offices for a long, long time: Working wherever space is available, whenever it’s free. (We distinctly recall one coworker who grabbed our cubicle whenever we were on vacation, due to its superior proximity to the coffee station.) Employees of all ages are vulnerable to a certain amount of discomfort and feeling displaced in such a situation. After all, as George Carlin famously said, “I need a place to put my stuff.”

4. Too much chatter, not enough privacy.
Whichever arrangement your office chooses — open plan, hot desking, classic cubicle farm — it’s bound to be louder and less private than the offices of yesteryear. (And we mean that literally. Today’s office is less private than the one we had last year.) For folks who came up during the era of offices with actual doors, it can be hard to adjust.

5. The electronic leash.
How do we know people are working in the modern office? We check their electronic leash. The leash manifests in various ways. Some offices insist that everyone be on IM at all times. Some demand regular mobile check-ins from whichever handheld device is currently in vogue. Whatever the system, it’s bound to involve a fair amount of technology, which is not always comfortable for older employees.

With all these difficulties in mind, the question really is: Why it important to design for older workers? Why shouldn’t workers just adapt to the current environment, George Jetson treadmill desks and all?

Well, In addition to the fact that it’s not, um, nice to force out older workers based on fads, companies stand to see real benefits from holding onto their more experienced employees. They often have institutional knowledge that younger folks, who were interns yesterday and college students only a few moons ago, tend to lack.

But more importantly for companies, the workers with seniority offer insight into a lucrative market: the Boomers and pre-Boomers who are living — and working, and spending — longer than ever before.

Images: 1., 2., 3., 4., 5.

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