Baby Boomers drive an office evolution

As people live for longer, they need to work for longer too. And as the way we think about work changes, it is reframing the way we design office space, says architect and advisor Sue Wittenoom.

In 2014, former Treasurer Joe Hockey famously warned Generation X that they needed to prepare for a retirement age of 70, but it seems the biggest demographic wave in history is already pushing back retirement.

Of the three million jobs created in the first 16 years of the 21st century, 1.3 million of them went to people in the 55-plus age group. Baby Boomers are now reinventing retirement in much the same way they reimagined every other milestone throughout their lives.

According to Peter Cappelli, the author of Managing the Older Worker, people who are 65 today have about the same risk of mortality or serious illness as those who were in their mid-50s a generation ago. “This means that there will be a huge cohort of healthy individuals in that age group who want and need to work,” he says.

Sue Wittenoom agrees.

“It’s not optional whether we will work for longer. We can’t afford to finance thirty years of golf and bridge on the kinds of retirement schemes we are operating now,” she says.

Pointing to the work of Dr Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, who recently published, The 100-Year Life, Sue argues that the accepted three-stage life path of education, career and retirement at 65 is about to be shattered.

Many of today’s jobs require more brains than brawn, which mean people are more able to stay in the workforce for longer.

“But no one can work continuously for 60 years. It’s just not sustainable and skills won’t last. People burn out,” Sue says.

Instead, people will dip in and out of full-time employment, and may take up freelancing at other periods, choose to travel or spend time re-skilling. They will take on roles as part-time contractors, consultants, mentors and directors, or become what demographer Bernard Salt calls “boomerpreneurs”.

The founder of The Soft Build, Sue develops change frameworks for new buildings, places and spaces. She says older people “want a different relationship to the workspace”.

“Organisations need to think about how they can create workspaces that let people decide for themselves how they work and where they work. Traditional offices don’t provide that flexibility,” she says.

“It’s not just older folks that want better office space. Everyone, from those studying to new parents, wants flexibility.”

Management guru Peter Drucker predicted that around half our workforce would be part-time by 2025, and “there are already clear signs of these shifts,” Sue says. “Look at the Department of Defence, which recently revealed that more than half of its workforce – 18,000 people – is made up of service providers, consultants and contractors. This is the future of work.” In this context, designing next generation office space is “about stage not age”.

“And that means creating the kind of workplaces that give us permission to have more varied roles, and don’t penalise the organisation which has to carry the cost of an empty desk”.

But Drucker also argued that, as the supply of young people shrinks, creating new employment patterns to attract and hold the growing numbers of older people will become increasingly important. And that means embracing inclusive design so that products and services address the needs of the widest possible audience.

Consider this one example. Impaired hearing and vision are the two largest cause of minor disability in people as they age. But augmented reality glasses will soon enable people to mute background conversations and enhance their vision.

Michael Abrash, chief scientist of the Facebook-owned Oculus Research, says augmented reality glasses will improve our memories, making us “smarter and more capable”.

And they can help an old dog learn new tricks too.

Magid Abraham, executive chairman of Upskill, a company which delivers industrial software for AR smart glasses and Marco Annunziata, chief economist at General Electric, say wearable AR devices are now being used in manufacturing and industrial settings and can boost workers’ productivity the first time they’re used, even without prior training.

“These technologies increase productivity by making workers more skilled and efficient, and thus have the potential to yield both more economic growth and better jobs,” the pair wrote in a recent article for Harvard Business Review.

The Age of No Retirement movement has developed 10 principles of intergenerational design:

  1. Safe and secure: rights of safety, privacy and information are respected
  2. Clear and intuitive: easy to understand and use
  3. Time efficient: not too slow nor too fast
  4. Delightful: pleasing, beautiful or enjoyable
  5. Accessible: easy to find, reach or use either online or off
  6. Human connection: helping people feel connected to others
  7. Flexibility: providing choice and ease of adaptation
  8. Right effort: requiring just the right level of physical or mental effort
  9. Empowering: contributing to self and social worth, promoting personal development and autonomy
  10. Sustainable: environmental, economic and social.

“I think the message is clear. In designing workspaces of the future, what works for older people works for everyone,” Sue concludes.