Working Later Requires a Few Changes

The first baby boomers may be turning 65 in two years, but don’t expect the generation that has spent a lifetime setting trends to slow down. AARP has found that four in five boomers plan to work well past the traditional retirement age. An aging work force—over one-third between the ages of 55 and 64—presents opportunities and challenges to employers. Older workers offer experience and reliability, but that is sometimes offset by lower productivity caused by declining physical abilities. Dr. Sharon Joines is working to help companies adapt their equipment and processes to ensure that older workers remain productive.

“If we can keep people from being fatigued at the end of the day, they will be more productive overall.”

An assistant professor of industrial design and researcher for the Center for Universal Design, Joines has older adults test various textured grips on tools and screw-off lids. She monitors electrical impulses in their arms to measure muscular activity, as well as how quickly their muscles fatigue and recover. Her research has disproved a widely held theory that older people need wider surfaces to grip so they can generate more force. But she’s still uncertain why they prefer chunkier designs in products. “We’re starting to pull some threads together with our work,” she says, “but there’s still a lot left to understand.”

Joines is an industrial engineer by training who formerly oversaw research at NC State’s Ergonomics Center. She moved to the College of Design after studying some companies and noticing that many of the problems workers experienced could have been resolved sooner by simple redesigns. “The design stage is where we need to start effecting change,” she says. In addition to her grip studies, Joines is testing the range of motion for older workers seated at a desk to determine whether altering the way office tasks are performed would ease strain and fatigue. “If we can keep people from being fatigued at the end of the day,” she says, “they will be more productive overall.”

To demonstrate her thinking to companies, Joines and her
students have developed “an aging suit.” She takes the kit to conferences and has people don Velcro strips and braces that limit movement from their fingers to their necks to their knees. A dab of cornstarch on the fingertips mimics decreased tactile sensitivity, while glasses with lenses partially obscured demonstrate the limits of bifocals for some workers. “We want people to experience what older workers experience on a daily basis,” she says. “We hope they will look to these workers for input as they design their workplaces and their products.”


Doctoral student Hyunjee Kim tests a special grip on a hammer while wearing the “aging suit” (also seen below) developed by Dr. Sharon Joines. The suit mimics the physical limitations of many older workers. Joines hopes it will lead to better design of workspaces and processes.