Interview with Elizabeth Fideler, of the Sloan Center, on Aging and Work

The share of workers aged 55 and older in the U.S. labor force will jump to 25.6 percent in 2022, up from just 11.8 percent in 1992, according to federal data. Some people stay on the job because they are living longer, healthier lives than their predecessors, but many are also unprepared financially to retire and need to keep working. What is the greatest benefit to this trend, and are there any drawbacks?

Employers benefit by retaining workers with valuable skills and experience who can be counted on for consistent performance, low absenteeism, thoroughness and maturity. Older workers set an example for younger colleagues and can serve as mentors or coaches to those early in their careers. Often they possess what’s known as ‘institutional memory’ if they have been with the same company for many years. As to employees’ benefits, provided that older workers choose to stay on the job (as my subjects in Women Still at Work and Men Still at Work are able to do), intangible rewards come from doing something they love. While the well-educated, accomplished professionals I surveyed do want the income from work of course, job satisfaction is number one. This can mean they are using their abilities, skills, and training; they are enjoying their clients, patients, students, or customers; they are helping others and making a difference. In addition, they continue to contribute part of their earnings to taxes and Social Security and can accrue savings for eventual retirement.

Insofar as the economy has not rebounded fully from the Great Recession, full-time jobs that pay well are hard to find and part-time or temp work with no benefits accounts for much of the recent improvement in the unemployment rate. Thus, drawbacks are really economic conditions that discourage employers from hiring at former levels and put pressure on the growing numbers of older men and women who need work but cannot find it.

What do HR professionals and their organizations need to do in order to accommodate this growing segment of the work force?

For starters, HR professionals should help their organizations confront and discount the negative stereotypes about older workers, e.g., that they are less productive and more expensive; their skills and knowledge are not cutting edge; they lack computer know-how and there’s no point in spending time and money training them because their health will break down or they will leave for some other reason. HR professionals should stress the superlatives (mentioned above), viewing older workers as some of the organization’s best resources. Accommodations might include offering gradual transition to retirement (phased retirement) for those who want it and flexible scheduling (which employees of all ages desire these days). Also, with more and more retirees deciding to “work in retirement” for financial reasons or simply to stave off boredom, HR professionals should be willing to offer employment to these “encore careerists.”

Are there any particular industries that have a higher concentration of older workers, or are perhaps uniquely suited to employ this demographic, and why?

On the whole, an older worker can thrive in most any setting provided that the job does not require heavy physical labor. Jobs in business management, education, medicine, science, law, engineering, government, the arts, social services, journalism, and architecture are but a few examples. (Those are the top career fields in which the professionals I surveyed are engaged.) And increasingly, self-employment, consulting, and business ownership are later life career choices, often but not necessarily in the initial career field. 

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA 1967, 1978) favors older workers remaining on the job; the government abolished most mandatory retirement in 1986. Exceptions include early termination due to physical requirements in job performance (constituting a bona fide occupational qualification, or BFOQ, usually involving safety), such as police work, firefighting, and commercial airline piloting. Another exception applies to top (highly compensated) executives who are at least 65 and entitled to a company retirement plan or plans. Law firms and some other sectors of the corporate world have made it a practice to mandate retirement when an executive reaches a designated age. In the process, they are putting out to pasture highly educated and experienced professionals.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing older workers who lost their jobs during the Great Recession and are trying to re-enter the labor force?

The aforementioned negative stereotypes about older workers constitute one challenge. Age discrimination in hiring, which exists despite the ADEA, is another. HR professionals should heed this advice from Cory Treffiletti’s blog entitled “Are You Hiring, Or Not Hiring, Based on Age?”: "Hire based on one thing: smarts.  I can also guarantee this will help your business in the long run."

While older workers were not as hard hit (numerically) by lay-offs during the recession as younger segments of the labor force were, once terminated older workers have remained unemployed the longest. After months and months of job seeking, they (and anyone else in the same situation) are considered “marginally attached” by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When the long-term unemployed give up looking, the BLS designates them as “discouraged.” Since landing a new position offering salary and responsibilities comparable to the job one previously held is highly unlikely in today’s economy, accepting part-time work and/or a much lower salary may be the only recourse—and that may be the unkindest cut of all for the older worker.

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