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A Sneak Peek Into the Future of Work and Retirement

What experts said at Columbia's 2016 Age Boom Academy

Most retirement and employment analysts believe that, for many Americans, 21st century retirement includes — and will include — some work. My Next Avenue colleague Kerry Hannon calls work “a pillar of retirement.” But is that a good thing for older Americans? And have employers and the U.S. government morphed appropriately to accommodate this reality?

After recently attending, and moderating a panel at, Columbia University’s 2016 Age Boom Academy entitled The Future of Work and Retirement (along with Hannon and my Next Avenue colleague Chris Farrell), I’d answer those two questions this way: Yes to the first one and, sadly, Not Yet to the second.

Since the demographic labor turn won’t arrive in full force until the next decade, we’ll likely need to wait before many firms look to keep and court older workers.

Below is why I’ve come to those conclusions, plus what the experts at The Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center program for journalists said employers and the government could do to not only better accommodate people 60+, but boost businesses’ bottom lines and help keep Social Security solvent (Hannon and Farrell will blog on their takes in coming weeks):

Who Can’t Work in Retirement

First, a giant caveat. Not everyone can keep working into retirement.

Health challenges (physical and cognitive) prevent some from holding part-time jobs, of course.

Physical health issues are especially problematic for older low-income Americans. Richard Johnson, a labor economist and senior fellow at the Urban Institute, forecasted at Age Boom Academy that, as a result, “we will see increasing inequality of people in older ages.” Johnson added that this concern highlights “a need to build up a stronger safety net for lower-income people and people with health problems.” As I noted in my Next Avenue blog post,The Coming Train Wreck Facing Older Americans, a recent survey by the benefits advisory firm Willis Towers Watson found that many Americans who expect to work until they’re 70 are the least likely to be able to due to their poor health.

It’s also a sad reality that some older Americans eager to continue working into their 60s and perhaps 70s and 80s can’t find employers who will hire or keep them because of their age.

Why Working in Retirement Is Good for You

But we should keep working into retirement if we can — for our mental health, according to several Age Boom speakers.

For example, Ursula Staudinger, director of The Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, cited a 2007 Dutch study that found a “positive association between employment after 60 and cognitive performance.” She added that other research contradicts the negative age stereotype that “old dogs don’t learn new tricks. The research says, yes, we can learn as long as we live.”

Gwenith Fisher, an assistant professor of industrial/organizational psychology at Colorado State University who’s been studying factors influencing when and why people retire, has concluded that people keep working as they age for a multitude of reasons, including their psychological needs and values.

2016 Age Boom Academy participants
2016 Age Boom Academy participants

And, she noted, it’s better mentally to ease into retirement rather than go immediately from full-time work to full-time retirement. “A lot of research has shown that a phased retirement is much better psychologically than an abrupt transition,” said Fisher.

Addressing Burnout Could Let People Work Longer

Burnout is one reason some older Americans don’t keep working into retirement, the Age Boom experts said (and I agree). If employers addressed that — by making jobs less stressful, more meaningful and more autonomous for people in their 50s and 60s — more of those people might stay employed.

And if that happened, employers might not be pummeled by the nation’s coming labor shortage. Over the next 10 years, 75 percent of the U.S. population growth will be people aged 62 to 69, said Johnson. But “under that age, the population will not be growing at all,” he added.

Unfortunately, the Age Boom experts concluded, since the demographic labor turn won’t arrive in full force until the next decade, we’ll likely need to wait until then before many employers conjure up ways to keep and court older workers.

Then, said Urban Institute economist Eugene Steurele, employers will want older workers. When there’s a labor shortage, Staudinger noted, “employers become creative and inventive in what they have to offer.”

What Employers Are and Aren’t Doing

A few progressive employers, however, are doing this already, such as the winners of the 2015 Age Smart Employers Awards that I wrote about.

But since they’re in the minority currently, hordes of burned-out older workers elsewhere are in the process of switching careers for psychic, if not financial, rewards. They’re frequently launching encore careers (often at nonprofits) that provide what Encore.org founder and CEO and Age Boom Academy speaker Marc Freedman calls “purpose and a paycheck.”

Bemoaning employers’ reluctance to help guide their workers into unretirement, Freedman said: “It’s really striking how little investment in human capital or dollars there has been in creating better pathways for these people.” Instead, he noted, they tend to lead — or sometimes push — older workers out the door with “graceful exits.”

Nicole Maestra, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, told the Age Boom students that “the phenomenon of steeply mounting burnout is pronounced in people pursuing unretirement transitions — they couldn’t do it any more at their jobs, so they stopped and then started doing something else.”

Unretirement Jobs and Internships Help All Generations

In some cases, older workers in unretirement jobs or internships wind up turning the younger employees there into better workers, too — as Robert De Niro did in The Intern.

Jack Rosenthal, president emeritus of The New York Times Company Foundation and co-founder of Age Boom Academy, offered a great example from ReServe, the nonprofit he co-founded and where he was the founding chairman.

ReServe finds paying jobs for people 55 and older at nonprofits, public institutions and government agencies in selected areas around the country (typically about $10 an hour). One of its programs trains ReServists to become adjunct college counselors in 60 urban high schools.

“It has provided benefits you wouldn’t normally expect,” said Rosenthal. “The regular counselors come to them for advice because we give better training than they got. Also, the ReServists establish wonderful relationships with the kids, stay in touch after they get to college and help them stay in college.”

The Social Security Change That Could Be Useful

One government policy change, some Age Boom speakers said, might encourage employers to keep and hire older workers while persuading some Americans to work into their 60s and 70s and delay claiming Social Security: eliminating both the employer and employee portion of Social Security’s 6.2 percent payroll tax for people 62 and older.

“Eliminating that might increase the supply of labor and reduce the cost of employing them,” said Johnson. “Encouraging people to work more and pay income taxes on those earnings could potentially offset a reduction in Social Security revenue.”

Work, Retirement and The Big Picture

That’s just part of seeing work in retirement as not just something concerning jobs and money for people 60+, but in a larger policy and an intergenerational context.

“We have to create a broader agenda by creating jobs we want to have, lives we want to live and housing where we want to live in communities we want to create,” Ruth Finkelstein, associate director of The Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center and a professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, told the Age Boomers. “There isn’t a they there, only a we. This is not a one-generation issue, but a quintessentially intergenerational issue.”

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: Are you listening?

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