By Jennifer Johnson and George Woods, January 23, 2019

Like many things in life over which we have little control, aging is an inevitable consequence of living. By the year 2030, one in five Americans will be older than age 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Along with the graying of America, we have an aging workforce because people are working longer than ever before. Reasons for this are quite simple: People are working longer because they have to, because they want to, and because they can. Unlike any other time in America’s history, there are multiple generations working side by side in a single work environment. Just what does this mean for federal agencies?

FELTG will be exploring this subject in a March 26 webinar Aging and Cognition: The Graying of the Civil Service, in which we’ll discuss the neurobiology of aging by looking at the structural, chemical and functional changes that take place in the brain as we grow older. We will look at the characteristics of aging and cognitive function, and identify both risk factors and protective factors that influence cognitive aging. We will also look at how those biological changes translate to everyday life, especially in the workplace.

Attention is the human ability to focus on information There are multiple types of attention. Like attention, memory is similarly nuanced. Memory has been understood historically by dividing into two types — “short-term” and “long-term.” However, memory is much more complicated and includes categories such as working memory, semantic long-term memory, procedural memory, and episodic memory. Each type of memory plays an important part in everyday life and relates directly to workplace issues.

Age still holds a tremendous stigma in the workplace. Stereotypes about aging and age-related decline in the workplace are more prevalent and acceptable than similar stereotypes about race and gender. Understanding whether a person who is experiencing age-related decline in work performance is both sensitive and uncomfortable. Often, that individual is not aware of the deficits, or may be unwilling or afraid to disclose impairment to a supervisor or colleague. Managers may not understand the difference between pathological aging and nonpathological aging, and falsely attribute certain behaviors to age rather than other factors. The legal costs for such mistakes can be very high. We should be able to recognize barriers to confronting the issue of aging in the workplace and look for solutions to maximize the skills and talents of older workers.

While we cannot stop the relentless march of time, we can and we should embrace the benefits that come with an aging workforce. By better understanding how aging affects how we live and work, we can better suit federal workers to the tasks of a job, capitalize on years of experience and expertise, and learn to create a thriving and diverse workforce that may have five generations working together in a single agency.

Jennifer Johnson is an attorney and George Woods, MD, is a geriatric neuropsychiatrist.

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