Former White House reporter Helen Thomas' rant against Israel was more than a "senior moment," but the forced retirement of the 89-year-old is a lesson in what the future of the American workforce could look like.
Not that more elderly workers will be telling people where to live in a racist tirade, but that the uninhibited talk of seniors who say what's on their mind won't fly in a customer service job. And physical limitations could hamper them from doing certain jobs. As more people work longer -- in their 70s, 80s and beyond -- the American workforce will change and so will its effects on employers, employees and customers.
"You can't say "Blow it out your nose' to a customer you don't like," said Dr. Paul Baard, a Fordham University professor and workplace psychologist.
Eighty million baby boomers are approaching retirement, according to a Wall Street Journal story, which points out that we're about to become a nation of Helen Thomases because, among other reasons, people live longer, pension plans and Social Security can't be counted on, most people save too little, medical costs are rising, much of their savings was lost in the stock market, and long-term interest rates have fallen. All of these factors will lead to more people working beyond what was normally considered retirement age.
Which can be a good thing if the workers are healthy. or if not completely healthy, then having those issues accommodated for, according to health experts I spoke with.
Older workers have a lot to contribute, including greater intuition, experience, knowledge and being a mentor, Baard said. They're also wiser and happier than younger workers, said Dr. Marc Agronin, medical director for Mental Health and Clinical Research at Miami Jewish Health Systems in Miami, and author of the upcoming book "How We Age." Older workers may offer the best customer service, being more patient and listening well to a customer's problems, Agronin said.
"I think it's going to have an enormously positive impact on the workforce," Agronin said of the aging workforce. People 85 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population, and many want to work, and not just out of necessity, he said.
Physically-demanding work is more difficult as people get older, but that shouldn't be an issue since the elderly are unlikely to work in those areas. The elderly have less energy, so long work days should be out. But a normal, healthy aging adult can learn new work tasks, but may be a little slower at learning them, said Dr. William Uffner, medical director for the Older Adult Program at Friends Hospital, a behavioral health facility in Philadelphia.
"There really is not much that gets in the way," Uffner said.
Other than the overall loss of physical vigor after age 75, there's very little difference between them and someone much younger, he said.
But that's for a healthy person. Someone with dementia or the early stages of Alzheimer's disease will have memory loss that will affect their job. Agronin said that by age 85, almost half of people in that age group will have Alzheimer's.
"Sooner or later, it's going to crop up at work, there's no question," Agronin said.
Hiring an uber maturist, as Baard calls people 70 and older, won't mean putting someone with arthritis in a job where they have to be on their feet all day or do physically demanding jobs.
"If you need somebody to climb ladders, then maybe you hire a younger person to do it," Baard said.
Eyesight and hearing can deteriorate, which could lead to problems for customers. "Is a customer going to be patient on a phone?" Baard asked.
Baby boomers, who are entering retirement age, are staying in the workforce longer, which gives companies a reprieve to capture their knowledge over time before they leave. It's a factor that should be taken advantage of, said Gina Gotsill, a co-author of a new book on how to capture that knowledge.
"I think people should work as long as they want to," Gotsill said.
Thomas had one bad moment in a long career, and her crankiness served her readers well as she grilled president after president. She worked as long as she could, until her crankiness overtook her career.
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Are more Helen Thomas moments on workforce horizon?