The New World of Work: Pros and Cons for Older Workers
Highlights from two 'Age@Work: The New Revolution' panels
When you put together a cadre of experts on aging, ageism and the future of work for free-ranging conversations on those hot-button issues, the atmosphere begins to crackle and spark. Possibilities and hope emerge.
That's what happened at Age@Work: The New Revolution, two provocative events I was fortunate to be part of. They were co-hosted by Next For Me (a media company reporting on a generation reinventing work) and amazing community (a global nonprofit expanding the work horizon for women over 45).
We talked about everything from remote work to entrepreneurship to career transitions to lifelong learning to big-picture demographic shifts. (You can tune in November 3 at 3 ET for a video replay of highlights of both events plus a live virtual panel.)
2 Panels on The New World of Work
In Brooklyn, N.Y., Newsweek Deputy Editor-in-Chief Diane Harris moderated the conversation where I discussed my forthcoming book "In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in the New World of Work" and Bradley Schurman, founder of the research and advisory firm The Super Age, discussed research from his forthcoming book, "The Super Age: Decoding Our Demographic Destiny."
"I was hanging by a string trying to do my work and be caregiver for mom."
In Washington, D.C., Peter Kaldes, president and CEO of the American Society on Aging, led the discussion where I was a panelist with Schurman and Next Avenue Influencer in Aging Elizabeth White, author of "55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal."
Before I share our insights, a bit about us:
Harris (the former editor-in-chief of Money) and I have written and reported about older workers for years and we personally live that life every day. Schurman, 44, is a futurist who specializes in helping organizations recognize the challenges and harness the opportunities of demographic change, with a focus on aging. White is an advocate pressing for public-policy changes to tackle ageism after confronting roadblocks when she tried to find work after a layoff in her 50s.
"What cracks in the system has the pandemic exposed that are specific to older workers?" Harris asked at the first panel.
For me, the answer was caregiving, since many older workers — myself included — have been providing assistance to aging parents and other loved ones.
During the pandemic, "I had my ninety-one-year-old mom with me," I said. "I was hanging by a string trying to do my work [as a self-employed writer and speaker] and be caregiver for mom."
Family Caregiving, Working and the Pandemic
I explained that employers haven't always been very understanding about elder care responsibilities of their employees and freelancers. " It's okay to talk about leaving work to go to see Johnny's soccer game, but not to take your mom to some appointment for elder care," I said.
But during COVID-19, I added, "I think that employers started to see this strain of caring for elder relatives on their employees. It has brought caregiving into the spotlight in a way that is good. It gave new attention to mental health and self-care."
Schurman put caregiving during the pandemic in a larger context. "For the first time ever, a common thread amongst working generations was that everyone wanted flexibility," he said. "Literally, everyone wanted flexibility. It became the one thing that united us as workers."
But, he noted, the pandemic also revealed the big elephant in the room for older workers: "Just how comfortable employers are with being ageist. In the dark of night, employers let chunks of older populations go. It was done under the cover of COVID and we're just kind of waking up to exactly what happened in these organizations."
The big mistake these employers made, Schurman said was "letting go of some of the most valuable experienced members of the team, because of ageism."
What HR Departments Need to Do
Schurman added that "the HR strategy in this super age that we're entering into needs to consider three things: Are you retaining and recruiting older talent? Second, are you being inclusive of this older talent in your innovation and design practices? And third, are you throwing away the model of advertising and marketing that you've been so reliant on, that is essentially dominated by young white men?"
I said that I'd like to see the U.S. Labor Department's job centers around the country, which are so focused on younger workers, start focusing on older workers, too. "If you've never done a resumé in twenty years or a job interview in twenty years, you need someone to help you," I noted.
White said she'd like to see the Biden administration "take a bigger and bolder approach to aging — planning for the long term." She reiterated the call she wrote about on Next Avenue "for Biden to appoint a presidential envoy heading up the administration's efforts related to aging, longevity and retirement security."
Schurman said the pandemic has "actually made the supply of labor smaller than it needed to be. And now employers are going to have to really deal with this in the coming years."
Thoughts on 'the Labor Shortage'
One way he said he thinks the so-called labor shortage will alter the landscape for older workers: "It will force employers to change the way they compensate people financially, because wages are depressed. I think that this will also force employers to consider workplace benefits, too."
"In the dark of night, employers let chunks of older populations go. It was done under the cover of COVID and we're just kind of waking up to exactly what happened in these organizations."
Schurman slipped in one observation about the older workforce that I seconded: "I think there was this initial fear that older workers weren't going to be able to make the digital transformation. They weren't going to be able to compete online."
Employers found out how wrong this fear was when workers of all ages — many working from home — proved to be as productive, if not more productive, than before the pandemic.
I shared that, based on my reporting for Next Avenue and The New York Times, the pandemic accelerated trends for older workers that were happening before.
"Remote work is here to stay, amirite," I said. "The genie's out of the bottle. This used to be something that you had to negotiate with your boss to get — that flextime. It was really one of those perks of the job. "
Pre-pandemic, I noted, younger workers applying for jobs had started to say they wanted to work remotely. Come COVID-19, "suddenly, it was all in place. And things are never going to go back the way they were. Obviously, the hybrid workplaces are going to be where we're headed."
Changing Workplace Benefits and Workplaces
However, White pointed out, "even though we see many more opportunities to do work remotely, you can't do remote work if you're a home health aide. You can't do remote work if you work in child care."
Schurman said "the pandemic supercharged the [workplace] transitions in a way that we're still trying to get our heads around." It's the businesses that are threatened by labor shortage "that are making the adjustments now, and they're doing so in [employee] benefit design, in ergonomics to extend working lives and by giving their employees that flexibility they need. And that's a net positive."
I said that I thought remote work has been turning out to be a good thing for combating ageism.
"If you're not learning, you're not earning."
"You're not judging a book by its cover. It's not that subliminal thing where you're next to a younger worker and you're being judged by your gray hair or your saggy neck or whatever it might be physically," I told the audience. "It gives you an opportunity to show that you're judged on your performance and your productivity."
I added that remote working can also help you stay on the job longer if you have a disability or a health issue that makes a commute or a workplace not conducive to doing your job.
Entrepreneurship, Career Switching and Older Workers
And I shared how entrepreneurship over 50 has found new converts and grown during the pandemic, since many workers have been doing some inner soul searching and asking themselves: What are my priorities? What really matters to me?
"We pondered 'the fragility of life' and decided 'I've always wanted to do this, and this is my time," I noted, adding that not everyone's hard wired for entrepreneurship.
Another big trend among older workers that we discussed: career switching.
More and more people over 50 are changing careers, redeploying their skills. "It used to be for only the risk takers and the outliers," I said, but now other people "are realizing that they have the runway to do that."
I had mixed opinions, however, about the growing trend toward contract positions, where employers hire people for short-term jobs rather than full-time employment. While contract work offers flexibility for workers, I expressed my concerns about people over 50 who still need employer-supported health coverage and retirement plans.
Schurman belted out my favorite line of the Brooklyn event: "If you're not learning, you're not earning." As he explained, "Education is something that you're going to need to keep up on."
I agreed. "Learning is fundamental," I said. "It's also raising your hand, asking for new duties. A lot of times when you're in the workplace, you just do your job. Instead of saying 'I'm going to take a stretch. I'm going to go to take on that project because it's a little scary.'"
Advice for Older Job Seekers
We, of course, turned to the subject of layoffs in the new world of work.
I cautioned that workers who've lost their jobs can't necessarily expect to get new ones with the same responsibilities and pay as before. I noted: "People get stuck in a moment," like U2's Bono says, and they just don't know how to get out of it."
Older job seekers must broaden what they're looking for and be willing to potentially take a pay cut to get hired, I advised. "That's how you're going to learn new skills," I said. "If you just wait for that perfect job to land in your lap, it's not going to happen."
My other piece of advice for older job hunters: Think about which companies you want to work for because of their missions. "Because when you wear that passion on your sleeve, you can get into a company. They love that. It shows through."
Overall, I'd say, we landed on a note of optimism.
"There's enough doom and gloom out there," I said. "You need to approach life with 'Yes, there are challenges.' But have some moxie; believe in yourself."
Schurman was upbeat about prospects for older workers, too: "I have an incredible optimism for the future, in large part because for the first time in the history of humanity, there's generational paradigm. We essentially have even [groups of] generations represented, from youth to old age."
Harris' takeaway about the trends that could be favorable for older workers: "We are in the process, both as individuals and as a society, of reframing how we think about aging and reframing how we think about work. And my hope is that what we have talked about here will come to pass."