Surprise! The Happiest Workers Are Older Workers
Here’s what’s making employees 65 and above more fulfilled than younger colleagues
The Pew Research Center frequently publishes fascinating studies about America and Americans, but its recent jobs survey was an eye-opener. Pew learned that employees aged 65 and older are the happiest.
Specifically, its survey of 5,188 U.S. workers who aren't self-employed found:
- Two-thirds of those 65+ are extremely or very satisfied with their jobs, compared with 55% of those 50 to 64 years old, 51% aged 30 to 49 and just 44% of employees 18 to 29.
- Older workers are the most likely to say they're satisfied with their relationship with their manager or supervisor (62% said so).
- Employees aged 65+ are the most likely to say they're satisfied with their day-to-day tasks (51%) and opportunities for promotions (33%).
- These workers are more likely than others to say they find their job enjoyable and fulfilling all or most of the time.
The Big Story: Older Workers
"We went into this study almost looking for a story about younger workers," said Juliana Horowitz, associate director of research at Pew. "But the ones who really stood out were 65 and older."
They're a significant part of the workforce, now topping 7%. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says Americans 65+ are also the fastest-growing group of workers and will number 13 million by next year.
To better understand what's making 65+ employees the happiest, I asked Horowitz to analyze her survey's results and spoke with several workforce experts.
Who Pew Asked — and Didn't
It's important to note, however, that Pew's researchers didn't talk with people 65 and older who can't find jobs, lost jobs or left the workforce because they were unhappy or had health issues. Roughly 26% of jobseekers aged 55+ are long-term unemployed, compared to 18% of those 16 to 54.
"I'm surprised by the [Pew survey] findings," said Ramona Schindelheim, editor-in-chief of WorkingNation, a nonprofit focused on unemployment and workforce challenges. "The number of older workers who feel like they've been discriminated against because of their age — the evidence seems overwhelming."
A 2020 AARP survey of older workers said 78% of them report experiencing or observing age discrimination in their workplace.
Horowitz concedes the self-selective nature of Pew's research. "The older workers [surveyed] are people who are pretty well established in their careers and were happy with their jobs to begin with," Horowitz said.
It's also becoming easier for many older workers to continue working than in the past because automation and technology has made their jobs less strenuous, according to Boston College's Center for Retirement Research.
Employers are frequently giving them more flexibility to work independently or remotely, too.
Age + Experience = Work Happiness
Horowitz and other analysts said that workers 65 and older tend to be the most satisfied at work because of their age, expertise and life priorities.
"The older you get and the more established you are in what you do, you know how to do your job better," said Horowitz. "You might have more control of your daily tasks than somebody who's junior."
Robert Boersma, head of sales strategy at Talent.com, a job-search site, put it this way: "The combination of having the comfort and self-assuredness of understanding how to do your job, doing it well and earning a higher wage — those are all the things that contribute to happiness."
The Unhappiest Workers: Gen Z
By contrast, said Horowitz, many younger workers "are low on the totem pole and still trying to find their place in the workplace."
In Pew's survey, workers 18 to 29 years old were the most likely to say they found their jobs overwhelming and stressful all or most of the time and the least likely to find them enjoyable or fulfilling.
A recent Bankrate survey discovered that Gen Z workers (in their early- and mid-20s) were the most likely group to quit one job and start another last year. In addition, 55% said they're very likely to look for a new job in the next 12 months; by contrast, just 13% of boomers said that.
There may be another reason workers 65+ are more fulfilled than younger ones, said Bruce Feiler, author of the new book, "The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World."
Finding Meaning Through Work
Based on the 400 "life story" interviews he conducted for "The Search" and his previous book, "Life Is in the Transitions," Feiler came to this conclusion: People of all ages are on a quest to find meaning through work. Employees aged 65+, he told me, are often succeeding at it.
"The key to being happy at work is to stop chasing someone else's dream and start chasing your own," Feiler said.
"The key to being happy at work is to stop chasing someone else's dream and start chasing your own."
Americans live most of their work lives, he noted, trying to make their parents happy, trying to do things for their partner and trying to make sacrifices to make their children's lives easier or better.
"By the time people are 65, they have finally liberated themselves from chasing someone else's dream and they're finally prepared to chase their own dreams. And, lo and behold, they're happier with what they're doing," said Feiler. They're prioritizing life over work, he added.
In a survey of 40,000 workers in developed markets around the world for its report, "Better With Age: The Rising Importance of Older Workers," the consulting firm Bain & Co. learned that at around age 60, "interesting work" becomes the No. 1 job attribute, overtaking "good compensation."
A Puzzling Question
One puzzling question raised by the Pew survey: Why would workers 65+ be the most likely to say they were extremely or very satisfied with their opportunities for promotion at work?
That's likely because they're less interested in promotions than younger workers and aren't bothered about not getting promoted, said Horowitz. "They're satisfied with where they are," she noted.
Said Feiler: "One of the things older workers are liberated from is the idea that the primary metric of achievement is promotion. The people who are the happiest don't climb, they dig. Climbing is the hobgoblin of youth."