Now for some upbeat news about older workers, specifically professional women in their 60s: They’re very happy — and most of them have never run into age discrimination in the workplace.
Those are just two findings from a survey of 155 female boomers working full- or part-time by Elizabeth F. Fideler, a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, in her excellent new book, Women Still at Work: Professionals Over Sixty and on the Job.
Fideler sent the survey to colleagues and friends, who then recruited other 60+ working women to complete it. The 155 respondents ranged from 60 to 84 with an average age of 66 and hailed from 25 states and Washington, D.C.
Fideler, of Framingham, Mass., calls these women “a ray of sunshine” in an otherwise bleak economy. They “deserve to be celebrated not only for their staying power and what they contribute as workers but also for navigating so astutely during the recession,” she writes.
The Jobs Picture For Women In Their 60s
The jobs picture these days is actually pretty bright for women in their early 60s, professional and otherwise. The unemployment rate for women 60 to 64 is now 6.3 percent, nearly two points lower than the 8.2 percent rate for all adults. However, 11 percent of black women aged 60 to 64 are unemployed.
Women in their late 60s are having a rougher time in the job market: Their unemployment rate is 7.7 percent. Even so, women 65 and older are the fastest growing age group in the paid workforce today, says Fideler.
Why Women Over 60 Work
So why are professional women in their 60s still working?
Money is one reason, of course, though respondents typically weren’t in dire straits.
“The wolf was not at the door for most of these people,” says Fideler. Half of those with full-time jobs earn more than $80,000 a year. Most respondents were also in good health and not facing staggering medical bills.
Still, more than half of the women surveyed (57 percent) said they needed the income to support themselves and their families. And 17 percent said they have second jobs, ranging from church treasurer to actress to substitute school nurse.
More Than Just The Money
But Fideler says that during her hour-long interviews with 34 of the respondents, she repeatedly heard that working, to them, was about much more than money.
“Financial reasons for working are right up there, but there are other reasons too,” she says.
(MORE: Laid Off at 60: What to Do Next)
Having a job (or two) gives older professional women a strong sense of accomplishment, says Fideler.
Some 81 percent of respondents said they work for the “pleasure of helping others, making a contribution, and making a difference.” Three of the top four fields these women work in focus on helping others: education, healthcare and social services; the fourth is business.
Fideler notes that for many women, working is synonymous with self-esteem and well-being. “The women I spoke to were not living through their children and grandchildren,” she says. “They’re proud of their families, but that wasn’t their main focus.”
The Impact of the Glass Ceiling on Women in Their 60s
A feminist spirit and memories of the 1950s and 1960s have a strong pull on many members of this generation of professional women. They began their careers at a time when cracking into the old boys’ club was tough.
As Margaret Gaston, 62, president of Gaston Education Policy Associates in Washington, D.C., told Fideler: “Maybe we are holding on because it was so damn hard to get here.”
Fatigue Is Taking a Toll
As much as these women enjoy working, quite a few are ready to start winding down their careers: 44 percent confessed to experiencing stress and fatigue.
“I do not want to work at my current highly stressful pace more than another five years,” said Sharon Harley, an associate professor at University of Maryland, College Park and the former chair of the school’s Department of African American Studies. “After that I can envision another five or ten years, provided that I have a reduced teaching load. I have begun to notice that my energy level is lower than when I was in my 30s and 40s. Ideas flowed more freely then, too!”
The Age Discrimination Surprise
I told Fideler that I was surprised so few of the women she surveyed complained of age discrimination, since there’s a widespread assumption that many employers snub women (and men) applying for jobs in their 60s. “I anticipated I would hear much more about age discrimination than I did — and I probed for it during my interviews,” she says.
It may be that most of the women in her study haven’t had to look for work in recent years and are plugging away at jobs they’ve held for a while. The average length of their careers: 40 years.
The Author’s Job-Hunting Experience
Fideler, who is herself in her 60s, says she personally encountered age discrimination after losing her research grant in 2008 while working for the public policy nonprofit Education Development Center. Once she began applying for jobs, Fideler says, “I discovered they could find someone half my age at half my salary. So I was reluctantly retired.”
Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work, however, took her on as a research fellow, which led to the book. “I was curious what was happening to other women.”
Men Still Working After 60
She’s now working on a follow-up book about professional men who are still working after 60. “At my book party, men kept coming up to me and saying: ‘What about us?'”
Fideler is looking for men 60 or older working full-time or part-time to respond to her new survey by August 17. You can get the survey by emailing Fideler.
If you’re in Fideler’s demo or know someone who is, I encourage you to help the author with her research. The results will provide valuable insights about older male workers and just might help men over 60 find work and purpose in their lives.
Advice for 60+ Job-Hunting Women
Although Fideler is a researcher, not an employment counselor, I couldn’t help but ask her advice to women in their 60s who are looking for work. “Find something you love to do where age is no barrier,” she says. “And don’t let anything hold you back.”
Do you have a question about personal finances or the economy? PBS NewsHour Business and Economics Correspondent Paul Solman is answering Next Avenue reader questions on Next Avenue’s site and the PBS NewsHour site. Email your question and we’ll send it to him.