How Old Age Technology could help stop a demographic time bomb

By Michael Millar
BBC Business News

image captionBMW has started a policy of taking on older employees in preparation for an era where people of retiring age will remain hard at work

German manufacturers, particularly firms like BMW, are not renowned for doing wacky things just for fun.

Especially when it costs 40,000 euros (£35,000).

That was the bill BMW racked up when the car-maker chose staff for one of its production lines based on an unusual qualification - they had to have an average age of 47.

This made the group of workers at the power train plant in Dingolfing, Lower Bavaria, eight years older on average than the company's usual production line.

The project, known as "Heute für Morgen" ("Today for Tomorrow") was all about making sure BMW kept its place as a technological innovator - not now, but 10 years hence.

The 47-year-old production line was created to mirror the older workforce the company expects to employ in 2017.

Ticking timebomb

Whether you like it or not, there's a good chance you are going to have to work longer than your parents.

Many countries are heading for what is commonly known as the Demographic Timebomb.

This means an increasing proportion of their populations falling into older age-brackets.

Numbers from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics are telling.

The proportion of 65-69-year olds in work in the country has risen from a low of 17.8% in the first quarter of 1985, to 27.6% by mid-2005 and to 32.1% in 2011.

This is not an anomaly - in the 70-74 bracket, the proportion of US citizens working rose from 9.8% in the first quarter of 1987 to an average of 18.8% in 2011.

Figures from Eurostat estimate the number of people in the UK aged 55-to-64 will increase by 14m between 2005 and 2030.

Meanwhile, the total working age population - those aged between 15 and 64 - will fall by 20m.

On the other side of the world, China's National Bureau of Statistics recently announced that the share of population aged between 15 and 60 years old declined for the first time in 2012.

Retirement dream

A combination of longer life and lower birth rates mean an early retirement - or even a normal retirement - may just not be on the cards.

Even if your sector or nation is lucky enough to be awash with workers, falling pension returns mean you will probably want to stay on anyway.

"Employers need to consider what happens to us physically as we grow older," says Chris Millington, managing director of Doro, a firm that specialises in telecoms equipment for the over-65s.

image captionLoughborough University's Prof Cheryl Haslam has studied the impact of an ageing workforce

"Take, for example, your hearing, which declines from the moment you're born.

"It particularly starts to drop out in the high frequency area - and that is where phones work.

"First you will may stop hearing the letter 'S', then you start to miss sections of words and phone conversations become very difficult."

To combat this Doro has invented a phone that effectively shapes the sound you hear.

This means the problematic range - 2-4khz - is brought back into earshot in a manner similar to operating a graphic equalizer on your stereo.

(Indeed, if you still have a stereo, perhaps you should be paying more attention right now.)

Smarter phone

In a similar vein, have you ever noticed that your touchscreen device, such as your smartphone or tablet, doesn't seem to work as well in the cold?

This is because the cold affects your circulation, which in turn affects the technology.

But when you are older, circulation decreases whether it's cold or not, meaning touch screen technology may have to be adapted specifically for older workers.

Of course, there is already technology available that will solve many of the problems associated with older workforces.

These are often designed with disability in mind, rather than age.

"Scan and read applications are becoming increasingly popular," says Glenn Tookey, chief executive of Sight and Sound Technology.

"This technology makes printed or electronic text accessible by speaking text aloud.

"In addition, the software gives users the ability to write and edit documents as well as including features for note taking, summarising content, and outlining text," he adds.

But there's plenty more on the way.

Nigel Lewis, chief executive of AbilityNet has been working on an EU-funded project called BrainAble, which has developed a way of how we can use our brains to 'drive' a PC.

"It uses brainwaves - or thought, if you like - to interact with the PC specifically for those with motor impairments," he explains.

Mobile solution

Prof Cheryl Haslam, director of Work and Health Research Centre at the UK's Loughborough University, recently led one of the biggest ever studies into the impact of an ageing workforce.

The four-year, £1.3m 'Working Late' project, showed technological solutions do not need to be hi-tech.

image captionOlder workers need assistive technology in order to enhance their work

"Physical activity is very important - sitting at a desk for long periods is not good," she says.

"We had a project called 'walking lunch', where we put a large map on the office wall and encouraged people to go out and go for a walk, rather than rather than sit and eat sandwich.

"We asked them to take a picture of things they'd seen that might interest others and then put special printers in the office people could use with their smartphones.

"They would print the photo and put it on the map, sharing local knowledge about the surrounding area with their colleagues but at the same time making them more refreshed."

New tricks

Back in the rather more hi-tech world of BMW, the production line project was a big success.

In collaboration with management, the 42-member team instituted 70 changes to the way they worked.

These included bringing in specially designed ergonomic chairs, at a cost of 1,000 euros each, to facilitate short breaks and alternate physical strain by working both sitting and standing.

New magnifying lenses, also 1,000 euros each, helped reduce eyestrain and minimise sorting errors.

The group increased productivity by seven per cent in one year, making it as productive as lines made up of younger workers.

image captionThe Doro Comfort 3000 phone allows for frequency alternation to aid people with poor hearing

"The findings of the project have quickly become standards for every new workplace, no matter what age the workers are," says Tobias Schmidt-Reintjes, vice president of HR strategy for the BMW Group.

"The beneficial effects work at any age - it's not only about age-appropriate workplaces for mature workers but it's about ageing-appropriate workplaces for any age."

Pensioners line

There are plenty of voices saying businesses will remain in denial as to the changes demanded by an ageing workforce, even as they are forced upon them.

There are also concerns that staff of all ages will be resistant to change.

The BMW production line was nicknamed "the pensioners' line" by workers when the scheme began.

But Sight and Sound Technology's Glenn Tookey is rather more optimistic.

"The older generation of tomorrow are the computer whizz-kids of today," he points out.

"Assistive technology will soon become the norm and will be mainstream rather than a niche as it is today."

As the Germans might say, it is time to think heute für morgen.

Particularly if you want to be comfortable during what, once, might have been known as "retirement".