By 2030, the number of Americans age 65 and older will have doubled. Many of them will be in the workplace alongside colleagues one-third their age. Designing for five generations in one workplace is one of the biggest challenges interior designers face in the coming years.
As longevity increases, it is reasonable to assume people will live active lifestyles later in their lives and to conclude they will want and, in many instances, need to remain employed. These older workers are valued for their wisdom and company loyalty and are being sought after by employers, as are those entering the job market on the other end of the age and experience spectrum. Early reports indicate these older workers are also popular on the job with the Millennials, who value their wise council and are eager to learn from their experience.
Traditional workplace design is already changing to accommodate more collaborative work models. For example, we are seeing a reduction in panel heights in many instances to encourage increased communications as well as natural light distribution. More "fluid" work areas can be created to support a project and then be "reabsorbed" into the work environment after the tasks are complete.
Other trends in workplace design include providing more informal communal areas to increase interaction along with semi-private to private retreats for when privacy and quiet are needed. Spaces to accommodate on-the-job amenities such as coffee bars, gyms and recreation areas, as well as day care facilities, are no longer uncommon as the lines between work and personal life often overlap. Manufacturers have been responsive to these needs by creating furniture that is mobile, flexible and multifunctional.
Now, we are adding another layer of complexity to the notion of fluid workspace design by recognizing that not only do these spaces have to be flexible, they also have to accommodate people of various ages and abilities-and interior designers are poised to lead the way.
To address the range of physical needs first, older workers may need additional light, higher visual contrast between surfaces and fewer pathway obstacles than younger people in order to enjoy a safe environment. They may need quiet surroundings in order to concentrate and require higher room temperatures to feel comfortable. They may have so much difficulty hearing at a meeting in an open area with background noise that they may be unable to contribute. Their personal workstation needs may differ greatly from those of their co-workers because the ergonomic needs of a 20-something may vary greatly from those of a 70-year-old person.
While the physical differences between the generations are significant, they are only part of what interior designers must consider when designing for the workplace. How will the emotional needs of the older worker be addressed so that they can operate at peak effectiveness? What gives them a sense of adequate privacy, safety, security and comfort in this flexible environment, and how do those needs compare to the same requirements of co-workers who are 10 to 30 years younger, or more?
If we add an additional layer of requirements for cognitive stimulation within the environment, we can better appreciate that designing for inclusiveness in the workplace is a complex challenge-and we have not even talked about addressing cultural differences. Interior designers who seem to be inherently sensitive to how people use space are taking all of these needs into consideration in the programming of these spaces.
Fortunately, this challenge couldn't be occurring at a better time. Creating spaces that are responsive to people of various ages will give more people occupying those spaces an opportunity to experience the increased quality of life that good design delivers. Given the current cultural interest in interior design, interior designers have ample opportunity to demonstrate that the value of interior design goes far beyond aesthetics and touches people where they live and work.
The recognition of the need to design for all ages-variously referred to as aging in place, lifespan design and inclusive design, to name a few-is burgeoning and has been an area of strategic focus for ASID for many years. Supporting its members through research (available at www.asid.org), as well as partnering in publications and workshops, signals the Association's intent to ensure that interior designers are prepared to lead the way toward solutions that benefit us all.
ASID president Suzan Globus, FASID, is an award-winning interior designer who consults on public, educational and museum libraries. She is a principal of Globus Design Associates in Red Bank, NJ. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and on the Web at www.asid.org.