02/05/2015 09:16 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2015

Unions and Other Old Things

Union membership is down again -- yet another sign of the revolution taking place in our 21st century workplace. Yet other icons of 20th century "work" are dying more stubbornly -- in particular a "retirement age" and the very notion of retirement itself. Indeed, even as unstoppable demographic forces render these traditions quaint artifacts of a bygone era, they cling stubbornly to life.

Yet the fading of unions suggests that nothing lasts forever. Not long ago, it was unthinkable that unions would become obsolete. They were a defining feature of what it meant to work in America and around the industrial democracies of Europe and Asia. But the latest U.S. figures report that 90 percent of workers are not joining unions. Even more telling: 95 percent of Americans in the private sector are choosing not to join.

And why not: the political influence of unions -- also itself an important and often necessary feature of early stage industrial democracy -- has all but vanished. It has been replaced by the myriad of pathways to be heard and counted.

The minimal role of unions in the 21st century prompts us to consider what else does and does not make sense in the workplace when we live healthy, active lives into our 70s, 80s, and 90s. In societies that are defined by more old than young, the traditions that have for decades shaped work need to be reconsidered.

A few of the most important:

  1. "Retirement age": The most recent research from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies illustrates how obsolete a "retirement age" has become at 65. Transamerica reports: "Sixty-five percent of Baby Boomer workers plan to work past age 65 or do not plan to retire. Slightly more than half (52 percent) plan to continue working after they retire." While income and health benefits are reasons that people are choosing to stay employed, many are keeping at it because they want to. At 65, they feel like they've still got plenty in the tank.
  2. Opportunities will be taken: Older workers are filling positions in all sorts of jobs, but two examples from very different sectors represent the trend. First, the homecare sector, which is experiencing explosive demand, is putting professional caregivers to work well after "retirement age." At Home Instead Senior Care, for example, 60 percent of their caregivers over 50. Second, the disruptive taxi service Uber reports that 25 percent of its drivers are 50 and over. Uber's older driver profile reflects the transforming character of 21st century aging workplaces that value wisdom, experience, flexibility and maturity. This is, surely, the kind of people we want driving us, our kids, and our parents.
  3. Marketplace Changes: In America, it is estimated that very soon the over-60s will hold an incredible 70 percent of disposable income, and they're looking to purchase things for a healthier and more active "old age." This spending power and newfound consumer taste are not peculiar to the U.S. Europe's health ageing initiative and Japan's Silver Economy reveal how important it is for the marketplace to adapt to a new set of powerful consumers.
  4. Retirement savings: Most fundamentally, we are facing the question of how we save for what used to be retirement. No longer are we satisfied with bingo or golf, but now aspire to new business ventures, adult education, and "encore careers" in the non-profit sector. Throw in the new set of needs prompted by longer lives and, increasingly, caring for parents who are in their 90s and 100s -- and all of the sudden strategies for funding one's life course have become much more complicated. Leading financial organizations are investing in the solutions. Blackrock's CORI indexes and Merrill Lynch's studies conducted with AgeWave are leading our collective re-thinking and re-imagining of savings and financial planning for 21st century lives. Done right, these "financial problems" can become terrific opportunities.

So whether one celebrates or bemoans the loss of unions in the 21st century, it is clear that the same factors that have led to their demise are also driving changes throughout 21st century "work and retirement." You can also bet that those businesses that best manage these new dynamics -- driven by population aging -- will prosper in the 21st century competitive economy.

If unions could do the same, then perhaps they, too, would survive.