05/23/2012 05:08 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

Working Longer: Creating a 21st Century Workplace for the 21st Century Workforce

American workers are getting older.

The reasons for this aging process are both positive (people are living longer, are in good health later in life, enjoy their jobs and want to keep working) and not so positive (many people don't feel financially secure enough to stop working at traditional retirement age).

Two things are clear, though: First, the only segment of the workforce that has grown steadily since the late 1980s involves those 55 years and older; and, second, that means that there are now more older Americans in the workforce than ever before. This trend is only going to increase over the coming years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020, one out of every four working Americans will be 55 and older.

We also know that of those who do retire, 40 percent ultimately return to work in some form. While there is a systematic lack of data out there about what older workers want, we do know that many people who work past traditional retirement age say they want something different than a conventional, full-time job.

This should be cause for neither lament nor celebration. Older workers bring a diverse array of skills and knowledge to the workplace, and many of them are very happy to continue working later into life. For employers, they provide a steady labor base with honed skills and a depth of experience. What we do need, however, is a workplace structure that reflects the new demographics of the American workplace.

Over the past few decades, we have seen a marked increase in the number of employers embracing flexible work arrangements and other forms of flexibility in terms of when, where and how work gets done. These reforms came largely in response to women entering the workforce and the resulting increase in dual-earner, as well as single-parent, single-earner households. Research shows that these working parents typically experience a time famine, requiring new scheduling arrangements that allow employees more control over when and where they work. Increasingly, companies have realized that allowing such flexibility not only helps working parents, but also makes good business sense in terms of increased productivity, reduced turnover and other benefits.

Nevertheless, working parents are no longer the fastest growing segment of the workforce; older workers are. Now, we need a new set of reforms to address the millions of older Americans in the workplace, and to ensure that the jobs we have work for them. Just as in the case of working parents, there are business benefits for employers who engage older workers by providing flexibility. Companies need to retain the human capital and skill sets of experienced employees, and find ways to transfer their wisdom to younger generations. In order to do this, it will be in businesses' best interests to create a culture in which people can work longer and work successfully later into life.

One thing this will require is a change in employer attitudes toward older workers. According to the Boston College Center on Aging and Work, 40 percent of employers worry that the aging of the workforce will have negative or very negative impacts on their businesses. Many employers and employees worry about conflict between older and younger workers, who are often seen as in competition for the same jobs. In reality, there's no reason why we can't have jobs that work for both older employees and their younger counterparts. It's not about choosing between older workers and younger workers; it's about creating a workplace environment that works for everyone.

For many people, that means that we have to change the notion of what a career is. We need to move away from the rigid trajectory that sees a job as a life course with only one "on ramp" and one "off ramp." Particularly once someone reaches his or her 60s, the trajectory of a career may need to take different paths, such as remaining in a job but shifting to part-time work, sharing a job with another worker, transitioning into a new, lower-demand position, or taking time off and then returning to the workplace.

Unfortunately, even as we have seen opportunities for flexibility in time and place management increase in recent years, we have also seen opportunities for big-picture changes like career breaks, sabbaticals and caregiving leaves decrease dramatically, according to a just-released report from the Families and Work Institute. Especially for older workers, these kinds of big-picture workplace reforms, and other innovations that allow employees to craft jobs that fit with their lives, will be essential moving forward.

Recently I moderated a panel of experts speaking before the U.S. Senate on "Workplace Flexibility: Creating a 21st Century Workplace for a 21st Century Workforce." Many people, including the briefing's bipartisan supporters -- Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) -- have already recognized the great dividends that workplace flexibility can play for employees, employers and the health of our country as a whole. But if we are to truly bring our workplaces into the 21st century, we must recognize the realities of the 21st century workforce--and create jobs that allow for economic security, autonomy, a climate of respect, and work-life-fit for employees of all ages.