Providing benefits for an immortal workforce

I recently read a fictional book in which the focus of the story was on genetic engineering and the race to discover the scientific equivalent of the fountain of youth. At the end of the book, the author  asked, are immortals living amongst us? He presented a credible argument based on advances in medical science—more specifically genetic research—that children born today have an excellent chance of living forever.

So the question may not be as far fetched as it may seem on the surface—immortals may in fact be living amongst us.

Whether you agree with this statement or not, it is a fascinating question, particularly within the context of employers and the employment proposition.

As a minimum, we can probably all agree that people will live—if not forever—for longer and longer. And I am not talking one or two years longer—I am talking 20 or 30 years longer.

Age 50 may be the new 40 today, but in the not-too-distant future age 80 may be the new 50. As an employer, think about that for a few minutes—are you prepared to accommodate a workforce that is significantly older than it is today?

Here are some of the obvious implications to consider.

1. The concept of retirement and employment will need to change. In the face of living much longer, the concept of twilight years takes on a whole new meaning.

Individuals will have the ability to be productive for a lot longer, certainly beyond age 65, and employers will be increasingly approached by employees wishing to work well past the normal retirement age.

Within the concept of Canada’s predicted labour shortage, retaining this group of employees may be the key to the economic survival of many organizations. Currently, the employment practices in most organizations serve as a catalyst to force people to retire at a specific age and/or act as a barrier to hiring older workers

2. Retirement benefits are not evil—they are necessary. We talk to clients all the time about the cost associated with post-employment benefits.  It is cost prohibitive and organizations need to be prudent about investments in this area.  And in the face of a retiree population that may live a lot longer, the cost implications become even more daunting.  But flip your focus.  As an individual with hopes of a 50-plus year retirement – what employment benefit may be the most valuable to you?  Support for your medical care for you and your family during your extended retirement.  In the world of tomorrow, employers that provide post-retirement benefits – on a cost effective basis – will have a competitive edge.

3. The aging population will start to have a profound impact on Canada’s healthcare system.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information reported that from 1998 to 2008, public healthcare costs have rose by 6.7% annually. Luckily, less than 1% is due to our population aging.  This is expected to change in the years ahead as more and more Canadians move into their later years where demand for healthcare services increase.

Within the context of today’s somewhat unhealthy population, the consequences for Canada’s public healthcare system could be significant. It seems rather obvious that governments will struggle even more in meeting their healthcare funding requirements in the future, which will translate into less public coverage and greater personal accountability for health and healthcare funding.

The burden of health will fall increasingly onto the shoulders of the individual and the employer.

4. Employers need to recalibrate their benefit plan design.

As mentioned already, most benefit plans do not anticipate an active working population beyond age 65. Age limits are quite common in plan design and these limits need to be revised.  Maybe life insurance is not as critical as it once was. Prevention and/or the active management of chronic disease will be the key to the future affordability of healthcare. Employers need to start investing today in these programs.  The burden of caregiving for elderly parents is not on many employers’ radar screens, but it should be.

I think most employers will view this issue with a certain degree of reluctance. It’s tomorrow’s problem and there are bigger issues to deal with today.  I cannot disagree with this perspective. However, the consequences of the issue will manifest themselves over time.

A truly progressive employer—one that wants to build the organization to stand the test of time—will begin to think in these terms and ask these questions today.

Age and aging will be radically different concepts in the not-too-distant future and in that there are both challenges and opportunities.

Are immortals living amongst us?  Probably not, but what a truly fascinating perspective to take when thinking about the workforce of tomorrow.