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Surprising Differences Between Workers in Their 50s and 60s

A recent survey from Charles Schwab & Co. shows that all older workers are not alike

By Richard Eisenberg

The media often talk about “older workers” as though they are monolithic — as if a 52-year-old has the same concerns and attitudes about employment as a 64-year-old. But a fascinating survey by Charles Schwab & Co., the financial services provider, shows stark differences between workers in their 50s and their 60s. (Too bad Schwab called it “Older Workers & Money Survey.”)


The survey indicates that workers in their 50s are far more depressed and fearful about their jobs than employees in their 60s. (Schwab and Koski Research polled 1,004 American workers between ages 50 and 69, with household incomes of $40,000 to $90,000, in late January.)


I thought that these were the survey’s two key findings:


People in their 50s are much more likely to feel stuck in their jobs than those in their 60s. More than half of workers in their 50s (52 percent) said they’re sticking with their employer because they feel it would be tough to switch jobs in this economy; just 29 percent of workers in their 60s said so. And nearly a third of workers in their 50s (29 percent) said they won’t leave their jobs because they don’t want to start over and lose seniority; only 17 percent of those in their 60s said they felt that way.


Employees in their 60s are much more likely to want to keep working than those in their 50s. The survey found that 34 percent of those in their 60s don’t plan to stop working, compared with 25 percent of employees in their 50s. Similarly, nearly twice as many workers in their 60s said they don’t want to retire (32 percent) as people in their 50s (19 percent).


Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, senior vice president of Schwab Community Services, tells me that she, too, was struck by these results. “We were a little surprised to see such significant differences between people in their 50s and their 60s,” she says. “It seems that the older you get, the more you like your job.”


Workers in Their 50s


Well, that’s one possible interpretation. But the survey also suggests a few other things at work, so to speak.


Paul Bernard, who runs an eponymous career counseling firm in New York City and writes about work for Next Avenue, says employees in their 50s are often under much greater financial pressure than those in their 60s.


“A client of mine who is 57 would like to leave his job in advertising, but fears being out of work for too long when he still has his daughter’s college tuition payments to make, a mortgage to pay, and an 88-year-old father who has Alzheimer’s,” says Bernard. “Comparatively, many people in their 60s are at a less financially demanding place. Their children are older and have moved out, they’ve been through the trying period of caring for elderly parents, and many have paid off their mortgages.”


Then there’s the self-esteem issue.


Bernard notes that Americans have traditionally viewed their 50s as their primary earning years. So people in their 50s who are underemployed “feel like they are falling behind,” he says.


Workers in Their 60s



Conversely, workers in their 60s tend to be upbeat.


As Schwab-Pomerantz points out: “Workers in their 60s seem a lot more content in the workplace. They’re more likely to be working part-time and enjoying the flexibility of doing so. They also indicate that they might be bored if they weren’t working.”


For employees in their 60s, Schwab-Pomerantz says, “it’s definitely about more than the money.” Only 55 percent of survey respondents in their 60s said they are sticking with their jobs because they need the money, while 64 percent of those in their 50s said they were.


Advice for Older Workers


Bernard says he usually advises people in their 50s who are truly unhappy with their jobs to explore other options, no matter how scared they are. (I agree with this advice, which falls under the heading of “life’s too short.”)


He maintains that you should always have an up-to-date resume handy and network continuously, to boost your ability to switch jobs at this age.


If you feel you’ve plateaued (or if your boss says you have), Bernard suggests that you look for a smaller competitor in your field where you might be able to get a more senior position than the one you now have — and a pay increase to boot.


And if you’re happily working in your 60s but fear you my not be able to afford an eventual retirement, Schwab-Pomerantz recommends taking advantage of the IRS's so-called “catch-up” contribution rules for saving in an employer-sponsored 401(k) retirement plan or an IRA.


Under the catch-up rules, if you’re 50 or older in 2012, you’re allowed to contribute up to $5,500 more in your 401(k) and up to $1,000 more in your IRA than if you’re younger. This means you can invest up to $22,500 in a 401(k), not the standard $17,000 maximum, and up to $6,000 in an IRA, not the standard $5,000.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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