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Should Older Workers Worry About AI?

Artificial intelligence could lead to new roles for people age 50 and up

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While some people are afraid that technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation could cost them their jobs, a new spurt of research suggests a much happier alliance between technology and workers — particularly older workers. These studies argue that new tech could be harnessed to reduce physical demands, slowing the effects of physical decline that often cause older workers to leave jobs. The new tech might even give some workers age 50 and older the chance to highlight their strengths compared to those of their younger colleagues.

These benefits, combined with flexible work arrangements such as remote work, will enable older workers to stay in their jobs longer, researchers say. That’s good news, not just for people age 50 and older who aren’t in a rush to stop working but also for the broader economy, for people’s ability to save more for retirement, and for federal programs such as Social Security that fund benefits through deductions from current workers’ paychecks.

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“There’s a ton of positives about this,” says Elizabeth Haas, founding director of the Metaverse Collaborative at the New York University School of Professional Studies. So “the first thing I would say is, don’t be so afraid.”

Will technology take your job?

Many Americans feel anxious about how new technology will affect their lives. Sixty-nine percent say they are somewhat or very uncomfortable with AI, up 10 percentage points since 2016, according to a survey conducted in July by CNBC. Nearly one in five worry that AI could replace them at work.

A study by the Urban Institute, an economic and social think tank, however, shows that some technology can make some older workers’ jobs less physically strenuous, as automation performs physical tasks, while still requiring human operators to make the machines work.

Using government occupational data, the study found that this tech has allowed people to remain in their jobs longer, even if they began to suffer the physical ailments that can come with age.

“A number of technologies that are being introduced are helping people overcome their declining physical capacity,” says Stipica Mudrazija, assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, who coauthored the report. “That’s absolutely a plus for older adults, middle-aged and older, if they’re considering whether they can continue working in their jobs.”

It’s not just driverless forklifts and assembly-line robots that are doing this, by automating repetitive or potentially unsafe tasks, Haas points out. It’s also emerging technologies, such as virtual-reality vision aids, that could help workers affected by such conditions as macular degeneration.

“[Technology] really, to me, says you can have a job for a longer life,” says Haas, who is also the founder of New York Consulting Partners, which helps companies that are growing quickly, and a former partner with McKinsey & Company. “Some of the more menial things can be done for you and make it simpler and easier.”

Older workers will need to learn new skills

If there’s a catch, it’s that new technology requires something else from workers: learning how to use it effectively.

“While jobs are becoming less physically demanding, they are becoming more cognitively demanding,” Mudrazija says. “The discomfort and the challenge is that we need to educate people — those who are currently in the labor market and those who are coming into the labor market — to work in this new world.”

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​Some previous leaps in technology did temporarily hurt older workers. Widespread computerization in the mid-1980s, for example, pushed some into retirement, a study by the World Economic Forum finds. But today the technology gap between older and younger workers has largely disappeared.

Besides, says Haas, technology like AI can be a shortcut for completing all the smaller steps in a project that workers already know how to do, for example, creating a website. “All I have to do is speak to the system about the website I imagine, and I can prototype it,” she says.

Current-day over-50s, she says, also have an advantage their younger colleagues don’t: They’ve already lived through the world-changing advent of the technology called the internet.

“It is, in a way, individual,” Mudrazija says. “If people are afraid of the technology to the point that they are simply deciding not to interact with it, not to engage with it, not to try to understand it, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They exclude themselves out of the labor market. They make themselves less competitive.”

Even with new tech, businesses will need more older workers

There’s a reason employers should want to keep older workers engaged, according to another new report, by the consulting firm Bain & Company. Worldwide, 150 million more workers will be over 55 by 2030 as demographics shift. In all, they’ll constitute more than a quarter of the workforce in the United States and other countries — up from about 15 percent just a decade ago — and as much as 40 percent in Japan.

Companies that hold on to older workers already have higher productivity, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development finds. But some employers, says Bain, have been slow to recognize this — even as the changing workforce means they have less choice now.

Other employers are making efforts to do better. CVS Health’s Talent Is Ageless program includes the option of telecommuting, along with flextime, job sharing and compressed workweeks. A quarter of the company’s employees are over 50.

A surprising number of Americans — three-quarters of them — want to work past traditional retirement age, according to a Gallup poll, and many are staying employed significantly longer. The number of workers 75 and older is expected to have grown roughly 86 percent in the decade ending next year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to an expected 5 percent increase during that period among workers of all ages.

Not all of them want to keep heading to the office full-time, however. Most, in fact, want to downshift to part-time work, Gallup finds. Flexible work options become more important with age, and technology can empower this, too, by enabling people to work from home or independently. Part-time work arrangements are another option that give older workers and their employers more flexibility.

“[Flexibility] allows them to not only continue working, but also to decide how much they’re going to work,” Mudrazija says. “It facilitates the transition out of the labor force. It doesn’t have to be a certain point in time where the activity stops. It becomes more of a transition.”

‘Soft skills’ could become more valuable

Companies also need older workers for the “soft skills” — teamwork, problem-solving, time management, critical thinking — that come with experience. AI doesn’t have these.

“One can make an argument that AI may obviate the need for many of the people who are highly specialized in some types of jobs, because it’s a technology that can do that same thing better,” Mudrazija says. “The question is, are we going to have enough people who have very broad knowledge across many areas who can interact with this technology, who can direct it?”

It’s almost like returning to the idea of the Renaissance person, he says — “the person who is very broadly educated and knowledgeable but was not necessarily super-specialized in just one particular area. And there are a number of things that older adults have that give them clear advantages over younger adults, as long as they are also willing to accept these changes that are coming and the need to continuously learn and adapt to them.”

And while the evidence suggests it’s too early to worry, Berg cautions that it’s also too early to know how things will play out.

“You’re looking at a storm that’s swirling and hasn’t settled,” he says.

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