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May 19 / Tracy Walker

Older Americans and Aging Gracefully in the Workplace: A Personal Observation

Older adults are a vital part of our society. Since 1963, communities across the country have shown their gratitude by observing Older Americans Month each May. “Get into the Act,” the theme of this year’s celebration, not only reflects on the 50th anniversary of the Older Americans Act but also focuses on how older adults are taking charge of their health, getting engaged in their communities, and making a positive impact in the lives of others.

According to the Administration for Community Living, when Older Americans Month was established in 1963, only 17 million living Americans had reached their 65th birthday. By the year 2020, more than 55 million U.S. adults will be over the age of 65.

Recently, I came across a very interesting employment statistic: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated that, today, one in every five American workers is over 65. A report by the Pew Research Center indicates the number of older Americans in the workforce will continue to increase: “[b]y 2022, the [BLS] projects that 31.9% of those ages 65 to74 will still be working” (Drake, 2014, para. 1). This is very relevant because I definitely consider myself a member of the older American community and plan on being a productive, healthy employee for a number of years.

Let me provide a little background about my job. As an archivist and librarian at Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library, which is home to the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, I work with materials that document the history of the American labor movement, specifically the United Farm Workers Union. I have been managing this collection among my other duties for almost 30 years. I feel it is necessary to describe my job duties here because, at times, they are more physical than mental. Generally, I do not spend a large part of my day at a computer; rather, I lift boxes, shelve materials, and pack or unpack shipments of records, all of which are all part of collection management. However, there are days when I can barely push myself away from my computer (like right now), so I would like to share some general observations about what growing older gracefully in the workplace means to me.

For us older Americans, growing older in the workplace requires having an overall sense of physical wellness and safety, coupled with the desire to build our acumen by actively participating in workplace skills development and relishing the interaction with co-workers. These days, that instruction may often be provided by colleagues who are much younger than we are. The willingness to work at both the physical and mental aspects of our work life—one of many strategies that help us age gracefully —will lead to gracefulness in our work life.

  • Feeling well: My personal interests in exercise and nutrition are currently paying off. I have experienced very few illnesses or injuries in my more than 30 years at WSU in large part due to my physical activity and healthier eating habits. (Lucky me; I love to read studies and learn more about nutrition.) I encourage older adults to get started with an exercise regimen because physical activity provides so many benefits, from sleeping well to operating at high energy levels. Even a few simple episodes of stair climbing can provide enough movement to meet daily goals. WSU’s fitness center offers the perfect venue for walking, biking, and weight lifting, and I take advantage of all of them!
  • Feeling safe: An aspect that many don’t think about, however, is that there are thousands who are injured on the job every day in the U.S. Although many might believe otherwise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that workers who are older actually tend to experience fewer workplace injuries than their younger colleagues. Safety is also about peace of mind when moving about in your work environment — from parking your car to strolling about campus and visiting restaurants and shops in our university community. Safety in the workplace is our personal responsibility as well as that of our employers, and there are several things we can do to provide an age-friendly workplace.
  • Engaging with younger colleagues: There is much to be grateful for about working in a diverse workplace in terms of age. My growth as a human being is exponential because of my daily interactions with my younger co-workers. They often grasp things more readily than I do. Their reasoning about a broad range of issues is distinctive and enlightening, and they are sometimes a reflection of my younger self. Such engagement promotes intergenerational learning, or opportunities for people of all ages to learn with and from each other.

In two separate articles, Kathryn Swezy, a marketing and communication consultant, and reporter John Gallagher share suggestions for aging gracefully in the workplace. Ultimately, for me, aging gracefully in the workplace is a natural extension of aging gracefully in all areas of my life. I enjoy the hours I spend exercising my body through physical fitness or other leisure activities as much as I do those that I spend exercising my mind because my physical and mental health are both important. I would not trade the experiences that allow me to improve my physical strength for those workplace episodes that provide me with the chance to expand my mental capabilities. My 24-hour cycle of continued human development needs those workday hours as much as home life hours to establish a daily plan of action for a rich and rewarding life.

Drake, B. (2014, January 7). Number of older Americans in the workforce is on the rise. Retrieved from

Kathleen (Kathy) Emery Schmeling is a 35-year WSU employee and a volunteer on COSW’s Health and Wellness Committee. A senior processing archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library, she has also served as associate director and interim director for brief stints during her 25-year career as a librarian. Initially hired as full-time clerical support, she took evening classes at WSU and earned three degrees: a Masters in Library and Information Science and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history.