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Long Lives, Smart Machines: Designing a Human-Centered Future of Work

Scott Frisch for AARP August 1, 2019

We see today the confluence of two powerful trends: greater longevity and a greater capacity for workplace automation. 

One thing is certain: given the impact of these developments around the world, we can all benefit by learning from each other about how different sectors and different nations are addressing these issues. 

The rising tide of automation challenges all of us to harness technology and increase productivity by augmenting current jobs and creating new ones. That means devising human-centered systems where workers have the skill set and flexibility to take on tasks beyond what artificial intelligence can achieve. 

We need to allow people to continue to work as they age by having machines take on some physically demanding roles. For example, a robot that can lift a hospital patient may extend the working life of a nurse who is treating the patient. 

Building these human-centered systems will require creative collaboration across the public, private and non-profit sectors. It will require substantial, smart investment in education and training across the life course. 

This collaboration and investment will pay off in terms of the economic security and personal fulfillment of workers and in the bottom line of companies. After all, even the most ingenious robot is not about to buy the company’s products and services.

As we adapt to technological change, we also need to design policies and programs tailored to dramatic demographic change. 

Greater longevity is changing how we live. Individuals are increasingly living non-linear lives, rather than the traditional three stages of education, work and retirement. Systems need to catch up and so do products and services.

Longer lifespans are leading to longer work spans, and therein lies a crucial answer to labor shortages and, at long last, a path to move beyond destructive myths about older workers.

In both quantitative and qualitative terms, older workers are a key part of the solution as we look to the workplace of the future. Older employees bring to the job some vital assets, including problem solving skills, staying calm under pressure, collaborating with colleagues, sharing institutional knowledge, showing a higher level of engagement, having the capacity to serve  as a mentor and staying on the job longer. As rote or repetitive tasks become automated, the uniquely human skills that experienced workers embody are crucial to the future of work.

The further we go into this time of aging populations around the world, the more counterproductive it is to keep indulging in bias against older workers. We will find that age discrimination against older employees is not only unfair but also increasingly unsustainable. 

As the world’s population ages, businesses with experienced workers are better equipped to tap the enormous economic activity generated by people over 50. In the United States, that amounts to $7.6 trillion.

Finally, as we address the consequences of greater automation and greater longevity, it is important to recognize that innovation—which is so often narrowly defined—goes well beyond designing new products.  

For example, managing a four- or five-generation workforce, with opportunities for mentorship and creative interaction across the age span, calls for innovation. Research shows that multigenerational teams are innovative, more productive, more engaged and have lower absenteeism— a win-win for workers and employers.  

We also need to be innovative in developing the most effective training programs that enable us to tap human intelligence in tandem with artificial intelligence.

AARP works with international institutions from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to the World Economic Forum to identify best practices and economic incentives for a multigenerational workforce. We have launched a two-year learning collaborative in partnership with the World Economic Forum and OECD titled, “Living, Learning and Earning Longer” to help companies build age-diversity into their strategic vision, training and hiring practices.

We would invite you to join us in this learning collaborative to share existing resources and help to fill in knowledge gaps with new research. You can learn more at www.aarpinternational.org/llel.

Industry leaders recognize that a population growing older is a key driver of economic growth, innovation and value creation. Recently, over 200 industry leaders, policy makers and global thought leaders gathered at the first-ever global conference to tackle the issues, “Disrupt Aging: The Future of Work for All Generations.” Convened in Washington, D.C., by AARP, the global conference explored rethinking the role, capabilities, and value of a multigenerational workforce.  The program highlighted and addressed the importance of age diversity for employers, employees and, ultimately, consumers. Featured speakers included leading thinkers and innovators from a range of industries and sectors, both from the US and abroad; visionaries such as Madeleine Albright; NYT best-selling author, Adam Grant; Frank Cooper, CMO, BlackRock; and Alex Wynaendts, CEO, Aegon.

By day’s end, participants left with an encompassing takeaway—one underpinned by dynamic summit discussions that offered detailed information, countless ideas for immediate application, and calls to action for effecting both change and shifts in thinking. That takeaway: Leaders from all sectors must intentionally create “The Future of Work”—and they must start doing so now.

We can’t change the demographic or automation trends, but we can change how we respond to them.

Maximize the opportunity. Learn more. Engage with AARP.

The time is now. Join us.

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Scott Frisch for AARP

Scott Frisch, AARP’s Chief Operating Officer, and head of the Operations & Finance Group, is responsible for AARP’s financial activities, information technology (IT), human resources services, data and analytics, and administrative and support services. He ensures that the operational and financial infrastructure of AARP runs smoothly and efficiently. This story is sponsored content and the author is not part of the Stria News editorial team.

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