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A Brighter Future for a Graying Workforce

Perceptions of older workers haven’t caught up with the reality of their increasingly prominent role in the labor force.

The federal Administration for Community Living reports that the U.S. population over age 60 has surged nearly 40 percent in just the past decade. By 2030, retirees will outnumber children for the first time in history, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts. The world population is on a similar path.

But in the face of this significant demographic shift, discriminatory views of older people persist in obvious and subtle ways. This discrimination colors coworkers’ beliefs about, among other things, older workers’ mental ability, efficiency, and competence on the job, according to one international review of studies on aging.

When people think about the future, “they fail to appreciate the potential that older workers present as workers and consumers,” Paul Irving, an expert on aging, writes in a special November edition of the Harvard Business Review exploring issues relevant to our aging workforce.

Research backs him up. Older people are living longer than past generations, which gives them more capacity to extend their work lives. They’re also generally healthier and enjoy more disability-free years, thanks to innovations like cataract surgery to restore their vision.

But ageism’s consequences are still apparent in the workplace. An Urban Institute report said that older workers, for a variety of reasons, are frequently pushed or nudged out of a long-term job at some point late in their careers. Some are forced into early retirement. And for those who do find another job, the new opportunities, while less stressful, are often a step down in terms of prestige and pay.

Irving, who is chairman of the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging, wants to chart a more hopeful path for our graying U.S. workforce, one that views it as an opportunity – rather than a looming crisis.

Governments and companies have a variety of options for accommodating older workers or for making them – and younger adults – more comfortable about the concept of working at older ages.

One new report proposed changing our expectations of what the nation’s retirement age should be to 70 as a way to improve older workers’ finances once they do decide to retire. Not every older worker would make it to 70, but this higher benchmark would have the added advantage of giving them something new to aspire to and could help change the public’s perception of an acceptable age to keep working.

One of Irving’s proposals is to make the physical workplace more comfortable. Xerox is doing this with ergonomic training to ease its aging employees’ skeletal aches and pains.

He also argues that employers could adopt a new management style: they should view employees of all ages as the ideal, because young and old offer something completely different to their employers.

A wide age range, he said, mixes “the energy and speed of youth with the wisdom and experience of age.”

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6 Responses to A Brighter Future for a Graying Workforce

  1. Ken Pidcock says:

    I sincerely hope that anyone whose circumstances require them to keep working beyond 65 is able to do so. I likewise celebrate those who are self-employed for working as long as they care to. But we would be naïve to imagine that an aging workforce is of unmitigated benefit to the economy. “A wide age range, he said, mixes the energy and speed of youth with the wisdom and experience of age.” Well, the presence of too many wise and experienced can also have the effect of hindering the career progress of the energetic and fast. I’m thinking primarily of higher education, but I’m certain this likewise applies to other enterprises. Baby boomers, in particular, need to be sensitive to the costs of their not getting out of the way when they can.

    • Marc Miller says:

      Higher ed poses an interesting problem. Because of tenure, a lot of professors do not want to retire. At the same time, higher ed is being disrupted by online schools. I had one client who taught at one of the top 10 business schools. Almost all of his classes were moved onto an online platform. He never saw a student face-to-face anymore. This drove him nuts. He will likely not stay, but he does not know where to go to next.

  2. Marc Miller says:

    One of the biggest challenges to older works is health insurance. Many would be more than willing to keep working either freelance or gig work if they had access to affordable health insurance prior to Medicare eligibility.

    This is one reason my wife and I moved to Mexico where we can afford healthcare before we turn 65 and I can still work virtually on my own business.

    • Brian says:

      My wife and I retired at 55y/o in 2010 not planning on working again. (I did however, successfully run for local public office, but that position had no benefits and only paid a stipend of $500/mo.) We were fortunate to have retiree health insurance from the company we retired from, but the premiums kept increasing.

      In 2013 we came across a number of articles like this — and we used that method to access affordable (subsidized) ACA health insurance for the next 5 years.

      We came across similar articles every year from different financial outlets. Even as recently as 2016 we came across articles like this, showing us that many people – even affluent retired people – were using the same method to obtain affordable health insurance.

      Now we’re Medicare eligible and going through that signup process

      So, depending on one’s circumstances, it can be done. It just takes figuring out how to work around all the rules.

  3. Bunny says:

    I believe if you haven’t secured your financial stability by 65 you haven’t planned very well. My thought is the younger generation are buying homes, cars, computers, etc. and the biggest expense is having children. I gave up my high paying job so one of the new generation could thrive. If people feel they will be bored after they retire then they haven’t seen the numerous volunteer jobs available. Some of those jobs pay a small fee including poll workers and Census workers. If some elderly can’t quit working due to finances or high medical costs than I understand that to some extent. Proper planning when they were young and putting money aside just for their retirement would have been a better option. So many of my elderly friends spent every penny of their paychecks on frivolous expensive items and vacations to show off and most of those people they showed off to moved away or died.

  4. Denise says:

    Older workers are still expensive both in salary and benefits. Management can not quantify their contributions to the bottom line their costs. The first sign of an economic downturn, to protect earnings, the over 55 layoffs will begin.

    People over 55 need a bridge to Medicare were their actual or perceived costs can be shared with a larger pool of insured. Maybe then they will still be able to keep their day jobs. I support lowering the medicare buy in to 55 for both those that are working and those that are not.

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