Diversity and Inclusion Are Key to Improving Longevity Fitness, Report Finds

Person gives a presentation to colleagues at work.

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Key Takeaways

  • Cultivating diversity and inclusion in the workplace and supporting employees from marginalized groups are both key to improving longevity fitness for all, a new report says.
  • Employers should not only hire a diverse workforce, but they also need to be sure that their policies are truly giving everyone the same opportunities and benefits.

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace are necessary to improve longevity fitness, or "how people can thrive, not just survive, throughout increasingly long lifespans," according to a new report.

Inequities based on race, geographic location, gender, and sexual orientation, among others, can all impact longevity fitness, according to the report, which is the third in a series from the Gerontological Society of America (GSA). Employers can help play a role in the cultural shift necessary to address problems like systemic racism, sexism and the gender wage gap, and anti-LGBTQ sentiment—but their efforts have to go further than mandatory diversity training, the report says.

"Mandatory diversity and inclusion training will help, but employers need to do more to facilitate longevity fitness among all their workers," says Richard Johnson, PhD, senior fellow of the Urban Institute, who chaired the report's workgroup. "For example, they need to ensure that their benefit plans meet the needs of a diverse workforce. Employers also need to tailor financial and retirement counseling to address the challenges faced by different segments of their workforce."

How Inequality Affects Longevity Fitness

The goal of longevity fitness is "to add life to years, not just years to life," the report says. There are three types of equity needed for longevity fitness: in relationships, which might include connections at work, a stable marriage, and friends and family; in health, which can be affected by socioeconomic factors; and in wealth, which includes "financial knowledge and behaviors," and "planning early, taking action in young adulthood," the report says.

"At each stage of life, people need to take certain steps and achieve certain milestones to maintain longevity fitness," Johnson says. "It starts with education and obtaining a good job, then building wealth through homeownership and investing in retirement accounts, starting a family perhaps, maintaining meaningful social relationships, staying active and engaged, eating healthy, obtaining quality health care. How well you do in old age really depends on everything that came before." 

Richard Johnson, PhD

At each stage of life, people need to take certain steps and achieve certain milestones to maintain longevity fitness.

— Richard Johnson, PhD

Factors like geographic location, race, gender, and LGBTQ+ status can all affect whether people are able to achieve milestones like a good job and homeownership. People living in rural areas, inner cities, and on Native American reservations have very different opportunities than those living in thriving metropolitan areas, Johnson says.

People of color also face medical and employment discrimination, among other types of systemic racism, which affect their health and ability to build wealth. The COVID-19 pandemic has especially highlighted health disparities based on race.

"People of color are more likely than non-Hispanic Whites to have lost their jobs in the wake of the pandemic," Johnson says. "People of color are also more likely to work in front-line positions that expose them to the coronavirus and threaten their health."

People of color have also been disproportionately represented in COVID hospitalizations and fatalities. Black people, specifically, are nearly three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than White people.

The GSA report also describes how people of color are more likely to live in areas with lower-quality facilities, higher rates of crime, and live near heavy polluters or hazardous waste sites. "These arrangements are not unique, but they are caused over a long period of time regarding investments—or a lack thereof—in health care and other infrastructure and educational systems," says Maricruz Rivera-Hernandez, PhD, a member of the report workgroup and assistant professor of health services, policy and practice at Brown University.

Women also earn less than men, often because they spend more time as caregivers, the report says. LGBTQ+ folks face more employment and housing discrimination and are more likely to experience substance abuse, homelessness, and mental health problems, Johnson says. All of these factors affect longevity fitness.

Potential Interventions for Employers

The report suggests a few approaches corporations can use to address systemic racism, increase diversity and inclusion, and support better longevity fitness. For example, companies can collect and compare diversity data over time and test for biased technology in hiring and evaluation systems, Rivera-Hernandez explains. Companies can also do more to support existing employees.

"Companies that have resources can and should provide similar benefits to all employees, including options for health care and retirement savings," Rivera-Hernandez says. "Access to high quality health insurance and health care access could help decrease health disparities."

Employers could also make voluntary retirement programs opt-out rather than opt-in "to increase the percentage of employees who are enjoying contribution matches and saving for retirement," the report says, citing one study that found changing to automatic enrollment in 401(k) plans increased participation rates from 37% to 86%.

Employers and unions should also ensure that health insurance plans cover the needs of LGBTQ+ people, including gender transition-related care and HIV prevention and treatment, the report says.

Though policy changes by employers and the federal government would help address inequities that negatively impact longevity fitness, the report also argues that "in order to make meaningful change, there is a need for a deep cultural shift to improve our world and create a more equitable society," according to Rivera-Hernandez.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted issues with systemic inequality and structural racism in the United States, and we should use this moment to encourage diversity and inclusion within our institutions, organizations, and our communities," Rivera-Hernandez says.

What This Means For You

If you're a manager or business owner, this report suggests taking a hard look at your hiring practices and the benefits you offer to employees. Do you provide everyone with the same financial training so they know how their 401(k) works, for example?

If you are an employee, you should take time to evaluate your own behavior to see how your implicit biases might affect your day-to-day interactions with diverse colleagues, Johnson suggests. Speak up when something is unfair or wrong, and advocate for more inclusive policies when possible.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gerontological Society of America. The Impact of Diversity on Longevity Fitness: A Life-Course Perspective.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 hospitalization and death by race/ethnicity.

  3. Madrian B, Shea D. The power of suggestion: Inertia in 401(k) participation and savings behavior. National Bureau of Economic Research. 2000:w7682. doi:10.3386/w7682

By Jo Yurcaba
 Jo Yurcaba is a freelance writer specializing in mental health.