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For a healthy aging workforce policy, look to Colorado


In today’s political climate, it is hard to believe that Republicans and Democrats can work together. Still, last week the House passed the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA) with bipartisan support to restore protections to older adult workers that were lost in a 2009 Supreme Court decision. A Senate version has bipartisan support as well. 

This is an important step, but we need more national policies for the older adult workforce that not only protect the jobs people have but create jobs for older job seekers. 

In Colorado, where I live, our 65 plus population is the 3rd fastest growing in the nation, and one in four Coloradoans aged 65 and over is working (compared to 1 in 5 nationally). Additionally, according to Colorado’s 2019 Talent Pipeline Report, our 55 plus labor force participation is 45.9 percent versus 40 percent nationwide. 

We’ve seen a lot of snowfall in the mountains this winter, which is great for the ski resorts. Another boom for the ski resorts: older workers.

According to a recent Vail Valley Partnership and Vail Valley Economic Development report, housing, recruitment, and health insurance present significant labor challenges for resort areas.

However, most workers 65-plus in the Vail Valley already having a housing and health insurance — they make an excellent pool of potential employees. A 66-year-old retired wood craftsman and friend just became a certified ski instructor.

Another friend, a 68-year old retired nurse, has a weekly shift as an information mountain guide. From lift ticket scanners to chair lift operators, older adults are filling jobs at ski resorts. 

We Coloradans know how to navigate significant snowfalls, and our state has been at the forefront of addressing the shifting demographics of the older adult population and workforce.

National policymakers can look to the purple state of Colorado for ways to form policies for older adult workers and combat age discrimination.

It all started in 2015 when the Colorado legislature approved the formation of the Strategic Action Planning Group on Aging (SAPGA) to create a state policy blueprint to address the population of burgeoning older adults that will be increasing through 2030 and beyond.

As a member of the SAPGA group, we make recommendations to Colorado’s governor and legislature to address workforce, transportation, housing, health, and well-being issues that will impact older adults and the state over the next decade. 

One of our first recommendations, implemented by then-Governor John Hickenlooper, was the creation of a Senior Advisor on Aging.

That may sound like another bureaucratic position, but an advocate for older adults in the office of the governor created a cascade effect.

The first tangible result was the  Lifelong Colorado Initiative, which made Colorado the third state in the country to be part of the AARP Network of the Age-Friendly States and Communities. 

States and municipalities can be designated “age-friendly” if they commit to the “8 Domains of Livability,” which are community features that benefit all generations, like developing policies for transportation and housing, creating opportunities to lessen social isolation and actively engaging older adults in the workplace.

As of now, there are six states, one territory, and 430 communities nationwide that have committed to being part of the Age-Friendly Network. 

Other states are creating similar blueprints. In 2019, the state of California began a process to create a Master Plan for Aging. Similar to Colorado, the state created an advisory group that will look at policies and practices that will benefit the growing 65+ population.

Yet, policy alone does not shift public perceptions on aging and age discrimination in the workplace. In Colorado, the policy advances are being paralleled with an effort called Changing Narrative Colorado. This initiative is based on national research by the FrameWorks Institute, a non-profit that works to shift perceptions and increase public understanding around social issues.

I just attended a two-day training on how we can reframe aging more positively. Over the past year, there have been some 50 workshops with aging service providers and businesses–even people who work within aging may be using ageist language and not know it. (Notice how I am avoiding the avalanche metaphor!)

 Changing the Narrative’s Age-Friendly Workplace Initiative gives presentations to businesses and Chambers of Commerce about the value of older adults in the workplace, and the business owners are coming back saying, “Wow, I never thought of older adults. Where are they, and how can we hire them?” Workforce centers such as the Arapahoe/Douglas Works Workforce Center are helping connect older adults with employers. 

As with many policy and governmental issues today, state efforts can be easier to move forward than national ones. With POWADA receiving bipartisan support, perhaps we can build on its momentum at the national level to talk about older adults in the workplace and the strength of multi-generational work environments.

The five presidential candidates in their 70s could start. They address Medicare and prescription drug prices, but not age discrimination and the older adult workforce.

As part of their platforms, they can replicate Colorado’s playbook by appointing a cabinet-level advisor on aging, multigenerational workforces, and age discrimination.

This position could connect efforts across governmental agencies and lead legislative efforts to incentivize businesses to hire older adult workers and combat age discrimination.

President Ford was an avid skier in Colorado. Our 2020 presidential candidates can learn from his example of knowing how to navigate significant snowfalls and skillfully manage a mountain of older adult workers.

Tony Tapia is an Encore Public Voice fellow, co-chair of the Workforce Development Committee of the Strategic Action Planning Group in Colorado.

Tags Ageing Ageism Discrimination John Hickenlooper Prejudices

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