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On the job

Editor-in-chief, gerontologist

The look of the American work force is truly changing. The 4.1.1 stereotype of our country being run primarily by young corporate employees climbing the ladder to success, no longer applies. According to The National Council on the Aging, over 40% of Americans aged 55+ will be employed by the year 2019. This population will make up over 25% of the U.S. labor force.

A major reason is the simple fact that Americans are living longer and are healthier than generations before them. They now have the capability to stay in the work force much longer as well as the choice to not automatically opt for early retirement. Advances in the health care industry (especially pharmaceutical) allow people with age-related and/or chronic health problems to go about living a normal life.

4.1.1Another major reason for older adults staying in the work force is economical. Many people discover that they just don’t have enough money to fully retire. For some, insufficient pension plans are the reason for revisiting the job force. Others never properly planned for retirement to begin with. And there are some who may have taken a large lump sum of money for early retirement, not realizing just how much money would be needed for the years ahead. Rising healthcare costs often create a financial problem for seniors and can greatly affect retirement savings. Also, since nobody can accurately predict what will happen to Social Security benefits in future years, it is easy to see why most people feel uncomfortable relying on this as income. While many seniors react to such economic dilemmas by seeking employment, there are some older adults that do not go back to work. Instead they opt to lower their expenses by practicing lifestyle changes. These could include seeking less expensive housing options and/or doing without some of the luxuries once enjoyed in the past.

An overlooked reason responsible for keeping older adults in the work force is that they truly enjoy working. Personal satisfaction is often tied closely with career or employment for men and women of all ages. For those who find their jobs to be stimulating and pleasurable, retirement may be thought of as a negative option. Continuing to work is really what is wanted for their “retirement” years.

With all the talk focusing on companies pushing older workers out of the labor force, many American businesses could be swayed to follow suit, unknowingly making a huge mistake. Due to slow population growth during the years between 1966 and 1985, added with  “Baby Boomers” now at retirement age, can have an effect on the  labor market. Immigrants coming into the U.S. will offset some of these statistics, but the types of jobs on the rise mostly require highly skilled and educated workers. Most immigrants will not be able to fill these jobs. With decreasing numbers of young American adults entering the job market, the responsibility will inevitably fall on older adults to pick up the slack. Businesses and companies that adopt this way of thinking before these changes take place, will be ahead of the game.

Older workers have a lot to offer the labor market. They have valuable life experience to bring into the workplace, as well as many skills and expertise. Years of dealing with people in different capacities often make the older worker a natural in situations working4jpg requiring cooperation and negotiation. Through life’s stresses, expectations and demands, seniors have also had a lot of practice in fine tuning their coping mechanisms. Adapting to the “situation at hand” is usually not a problem for this generation. The current older population was raised to believe in the “good work ethic,” and are often quite loyal employees. Their attendance record is as high or higher than their younger counterparts and the job turnover rate is much lower for seniors. Punctuality is an important trait attributed to older workers as well. They also seem to bring a sense of stability to the workplace.

Financially speaking, it may be a better deal to hold onto older workers. While experience employees may cost businesses more money in salaries and benefits than new employees, in the long run they could actually be saving the company money. The cost of replacing valuable workers through recruitment, screening and training is great. There is also the fear that once both time and money are spent on a new employee, that person may decide to leave and the company is once again back to “square one,” (a major problem for employers today). An experienced employee, on the other hand, is more likely to stick around.

One factor important to the success of aging workers remaining in the labor force is their willingness to participate in new and upgrading skill training. Whether it is learning a brand new task or just updating a skill already known, continuous learning is key in today’s work environment for all ages. Older workers especially need to make sure that such training is both available and accessible to them. It is no longer acceptable to “pass” on learning new things because it is unfamiliar territory. workers3This is the attitude of those who will be left behind. A major shift in today’s job market for employment opportunities is in the technology and service oriented fields. Industry and manufacturing jobs are not nearly as plentiful as in the past. This is why training is so important to older workers. If a company itself is unable to provide on-the-job training for employees, outside sources may be an option. For example, there are courses available in technology and computer subjects at many educational institutions and recreational centers throughout the country. For older women who may be entering the work force for the first time, taking some basic computer and clerical courses prior to job hunting may be the best plan. New work options are a real plus for older workers as well. Phased retirement, for example, is usually a win-win situation for both employer and employee. This is where older workers gradually decrease their work time but do not decrease their pension benefits. Employers still get to hold onto their experienced workers, but on a part-time basis. Being able to slowly adjust to retirement is a real advantage for workers too.

Besides regular part-time work, other more modern part-time options are available in today’s job market and are a real plus for the older worker. These options include job sharing, seasonal employment and flex time. Job sharing is when two part-time employees share one full-time job. Here communication and feedback is key to a successful working relationship. In many job sharing situations, both employees retain full health insurance benefits, vacation leave and other such perks. In a flex-time position, the employee has the freedom in picking the hours and days in which he/she works. These hours could vary from week to week depending on how the position is set up. Seasonal work is for certain specific times of the year, like Christmas, summertime etc. For those who live in two different locations during the year, this is a wonderful option.

On the Job - home officeSelf-employment, working at home, consulting and telecommuting are other ways adults are getting the job done. The number of Americans who work at home is growing fast, and senior adults are a big part of this number. For those older adults who are computer literate, the opportunities are even greater. Telecommuting is when computers at different locations are networked together and work side by side without actually being together. This is great for anyone who likes to spend some or all of their time working at home. It is an especially attractive option for those who are homebound and need to work at home. Many companies are just now making this option available to workers for specific days or for when an emergency occurs and an employee can’t get into the office. Once again it is initially expensive for a company to set this up, but in the long run, it can really pay off.

Consulting and working as a temporary employee for an agency are other options of interest to seniors. The flexibility and freedom here is especially attractive to those older adults who just want to supplement their income. They like to have the control over what they are doing and when they are doing it.

The bottom line is that older workers are a great asset to the labor force in this country. The urgent need for older employees will force the politicians, media and those in general to re-think the whole “retirement” issue and to do way with the current stereotypes regarding aging. New work options will continue to attract seniors into the job market and it will be essential for both young and old to work together to keep America’s economy strong.


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Cynthia Lopinto

Cyn LoPinto, M.A. is a gerontologist focusing on significant issues affecting older adults and their families. Her areas of interest include lifestyle enrichment, family dynamics, and caregiver support. Cyn has worked in both the recreational and healthcare industries.

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