In a recent piece, I talked about how increasing longevity was affecting technologically advanced societies in ways that only occasionally come to the surface. Pope Benedict broke with tradition by resigning due to advanced age, for example, rather than dying in office. Popes of old didn’t usually live long enough to face the problem.

Recently, Marcus Roberts pointed out that an aging workforce is likely to be less productive, noting that

“On the one hand, there are fewer jobs requiring manual labour, which means are you productive for longer into your golden years. Conversely, the increased importance of technology can be a drawback for older people who are less adept at adapting.”

The “grad-to-granny” ratio, the relationship of those aged 20–29 to those aged 55–75, is declining everywhere.

Many sources dispute the claim that older workers are less productive. A recent article in BusinessWeek flatly asserts, “An aging population may be inevitable. A decline in worker productivity with an aging labor force isn’t.”

Likewise, a Centers for Disease Control specialist asserts,

“There is no consistent relationship between aging and work performance. Although older workers are more likely to have chronic health conditions and physical limitations, these factors are not directly related to decreased work performance in most cases. And there are many advantages to maintaining and hiring older workers. They generally have more experience, better relationships with co-workers, and report less stress at work. Older workers also have fewer non-fatal injuries than their younger counterparts.”

But, he admits,

“But when an injury occurs, the injury tends to be more severe and it takes longer for the worker to recover.”

I think all such sources are whistling down the wind. For many reasons, an aging population features a less productive workforce. Let’s look at just three of them:

An increase in chronic diseases is one. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) notes that one in five Americans 50 and over suffers from a chronic condition. Granted, the conditions are not always serious. One might have a touch of arthritis or osteopenia (less severe than osteoporosis), or adult onset diabetes that is well controlled. Realistically, however, that patient usually did not have the condition at 25 years of age.

When two or more chronic diseases develop, they can aggravate each other. Diabetes might be helped by exercise but arthritis makes exercise painful. These health issues do not negate the value of the older worker’s life experience. But they may mean time off, leaves of absence, or inability to keep the pace during deadline rushes.

Second, rising longevity means that many older workers must care for or even make decisions for aged parents (or aging and ill spouses). Aged parents in particular differ from growing children in two ways: Over time, they become more physically and cognitively needy, not less. And the pace and intensity are much less predictable. A mother of growing children might safely say, “When Gavin and Rita are both in school full time, I can accept a promotion to supervisor.” No such clear road map is likely for the adult child caregiver. Her life experience will surely help her cope with the wilderness of question marks, but it is still a wilderness of question marks by comparison.

Lastly, the older we get, the more likely we ourselves face cognitive disorders. In Canada (fairly representative of Western world countries), “dementia and cognitive impairment not meeting the criteria for dementia are estimated to affect 8% and 16.8% of Canadians aged 65 years and older.”

There is a hidden downside to the recent abandonment of mandatory retirement ages: The gold watch at 65 obviated many productivity concerns. Today, an employee’s age-related cognitive impairment must be either confronted or ignored more directly, with consequences either way. Perhaps this issue can be addressed with sensitivity and dignity. Indeed, many causes of cognitive confusion are identifiable and treatable (provided they can be safely confronted). But the challenge is new, likely to grow, and in my view unlikely to be helped by politicization or litigation.

We have an aging work force for the next few decades, and must make the best of it. We are better off to examine productivity issues thoughtfully than to listen to rhetoric designed to conjure them away.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...