Working Longer in America: Prospects and Problems
Why these experts were both hopeful and concerned about older workers
Working into your 60s and perhaps 70s is one way to offset a lack of retirement savings and to remain engaged. But how possible is it really?
“More and more of us want, and need, to be working longer than we can,” said Ruth Finkelstein, director of the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging at Hunter College at a recent New York City panel she convened on the subject. The three panelists at Working Longer: Prospects and Problems were, as Finkelstein described them, “embedded reporters covering different battles on the front of aging and working.”
As you’ll see below in my recap , two of the journalists were pretty upbeat, for a variety of reasons. The third took a far gloomier view. As it turns out, all three are correct, because the reality for older workers today is a mixed bag.
Working Longer: 2 Optimists and a Pessimist
Chris Farrell and Carol Hymowitz were the optimists, and talked about two trends: older entrepreneurs and employers hiring and retaining older workers. Farrell is a Next Avenue blogger on work, entrepreneurship and unretirement, author of Purpose and a Paycheck and senior economics contributor at American Public Media’s Marketplace radio programs. Hymowitz writes about older workers for Next Avenue, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Businessweek; she’s also a fellow at Stanford Longevity Center.
The pessimist, who talked about his articles on age discrimination by employers: Peter Gosselin, a 2018 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, senior fellow at the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging and contributing reporter with ProPublica. Last year, Gosselin co-wrote the ProPublica expose about how IBM has cut thousands of its older workers: “Cutting ‘Old Heads’ at IBM.”
Older Worker Stereotypes and the Entrepreneurship Boom
Farrell made a convincing case, based on research, that common stereotypes about older workers are more myth than reality. “Stereotypes like people aren’t creative past 45 and they’re not productive as they get older,” Farrell said. “The evidence shows this is wrong.”
Farrell pointed to the growth in entrepreneurship among older Americans. “In 2017, 26% of new business formation was by people age 55 to 64. That’s up from 15% in 1997,” he said.
The internet and falling technology costs are making it easier to launch a business in midlife, said Farrell. “So now, with most of these businesses, the owners are not touching their 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plans. That makes starting a business less risky for their retirement,” he noted.
Farrell maintained that “there is a fundamental shift going on” in America. “The leading edge of this change is entrepreneurship, and a lot of it is solo entrepreneurship,” he said. “That’s creative: You have to solve a problem and you do it by building on your experience and knowledge.”
One irony of age discrimination Farrell mentioned: Often, these days, older workers who are shown the door by their employers due to their age end up starting businesses and then selling services right back to the companies where they'd worked.
He said he’d like to see more cities and towns inviting people 50-plus to start companies there. “Be inclusive. I think it would make a big difference,” said Farrell.
How Some Employers Are Enticing Workers to Stay
Hymowitz lately has been reporting on the somewhat surprising trend she sees of certain companies and fields changing policies to better suit older workers’ preferences and needs.
“My hypothesis is that more companies are slowly trying to retain and hire older workers age 55-plus and 60-plus,” she said. ‘I was skeptical at first. But I kept digging and the story started emerging. In manufacturing, health care, transportation, energy and — most surprising of all — Hollywood, I found companies now want older people due to the labor shortage. They need them.”
She cited a survey led by North Carolina State professor Robert Clark and the Willis Towers Watson risk management firm that found 44% of companies said they were having difficulty finding workers with the same knowledge and skills as retirees.
What’s happening, Hymowitz noted, is that some employers are looking for ways to keep older employees who want to work part-time rather than full-time “and stay on as long as they can be productive.”
Hymowitz has been publishing pieces with examples of exactly that lately. See her Bloomberg Businessweek story “Managing Baby Boomer Retirement When You’re Not Allowed to Ask” and her Next Avenue piece, “Hooray for Hollywood: The Age Stigma Is Fading.”
At the panel, Hymowitz gave the example of industrial equipment maker Ingersoll Rand. “A third of their 55,000 employees are 50 and older. The company looked at its numbers and said ‘What are we going to do? We can’t afford to lose so many of them all at once.’”
Now, the company asks its workers in their 50s and 60s to collaborate with managers about their retirement plans so they can together come up with part-time solutions.
In health care, what started as a nursing shortage has spread across job categories, Hymowitz said. Now, she noted, many health care firms are letting older workers switch to flexible schedules, sometimes partnering with younger employees in multigenerational teams. “What a lot of health companies did with nurses has now spread to their technical, office and service workers,” said Hymowitz.
Then there's La La Land.
“Hollywood is not exactly an industry you would expect to be eliciting older workers. But what’s changed is that streaming has been a complete disruption, changing the amount of films being made dramatically,” said Hymowitz. “So Hollywood is desperate for talent and is hiring people behind the scenes who hadn’t been able to find jobs for five or 10 years. I talked to one 74-year-oild screenwriter who was well known in the ‘80s but had a dry spell after age 60. Now he’s working on [the Amazon police series] Bosch.”
But, Hymowitz noted, this trend is hardly universal among employers. “Look at tech and finance,” she said. “They tend to be youth-centric. You won’t find many 60-plus employees there.”
The Twin Scourges of Age Discrimination and Layoffs
Gosselin then took the discussion in another direction. “You’ve heard a great deal of optimism. Now, we’re going to fall off a cliff,” he said.
Since the 1990s, Gosselin said, Supreme Court decisions on age discrimination “have made it all but impossible” to meet the standard to win a case. “It now has to be no other fact but age” that led someone to lose a job, he noted. “That’s a pretty high bar.”
According to Gosselin, the age discrimination laws “have been gutted.”
In his IBM research, Gosselin said, the company created spreadsheets that meant employees who had been at the firm a short time were more protected from layoffs than long-time workers.
And in a recent study he did with the Urban Institute’s Richard Johnson, Gosselin found that more than half of workers 50 and older get laid off or pushed out of their career positions on their way to retirement. Few of them ever earn what they did before their setbacks.
“When you combine older people who have had involuntary job separations with those forced out due to problems with their health or the health of someone in their family, two-thirds will retire involuntarily,’ said Gosselin. “That is not the ‘golden years’ story we are told.”
Gosselin then said “we need changes in the [age discrimination] law” because “it’s a basic fairness issue.”
He added: “Age discrimination is wasteful, wrong and it’s got to stop.”
The evening ended with the panelists’ addressing the question: Do older workers need to work or want to work?
Said Farrell, “The answer for most people is: Both.”