What's New in Aging: The future of older workers

This week’s report on the shaky financial future of Social Security and — more imminently — Medicare revived talk of how the aging of the U.S. population burdens the nation.

But the perception of older adults was quite different during a recent three-day presentation at Columbia University. A succession of speakers from academia and the business and health fields focused on the potential productivity of older workers. Some researchers believe they can help the economy and society in unprecedented fashion, since baby boomers create a larger pool of experienced workers than has ever existed.

“The more old people who are working, the stronger the economy,” asserted Linda P. Fried, dean of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. “If we can design this right for old people, everybody’s going to benefit.”

Dr. Fried was among a range of speakers addressing journalists on the topic of “The Future of Work: New Technology and an Aging Workforce,” presented by the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center. They warned about the dangers of age discrimination in the workforce and assumptions about the so-called “silver tsunami” that focus on negatives and overlook the value of people in their 50s, 60s and beyond.

The discussion accompanied a wealth of statistics tied to workplace trends. Nearly 27 percent of people ages 65-74 were working or seeking work in 2016, an increase of nearly 10 percentage points from two decades earlier, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

That age group’s number in the workforce will increase by a whopping 46 percent from 2016 to 2026, the BLS predicts. That’s because there will be more of them to start with and they are increasingly likely to keep working beyond 65, either from seeking continued purpose in their lives or driven by the basic need for economic security.

“People are healthy ... but people are not saving for retirement” in a way that necessarily lets them quit working at 65 if they want, said Patricia Buckley, managing director of economics for Deloitte.

Among the other themes stressed by speakers:

• The aging process has great individual variability, rendering inaccurate any statements about older adults’ inability to adapt to new technology in the workplace.

• In mid-life and later, the brain’s processing speed typically slows in learning new tasks, but older workers often compensate for that by virtue of their greater experience, knowledge, vocabulary and other assets.

• With growth of telecommuting and part-time and flex-time positions, as well as reduced general emphasis on physical labor, savvy employers have the opportunity to make better use of older workers than they ever could before.

“We hear a lot of doom and gloom because societies [across the world] are gaining all of these old guys and girls,” said Ursula Staudinger, a Columbia professor, lifespan psychologist and aging researcher, who countered that older adults are retaining brainpower better than was the case with prior generations. Continuing their work longer is one way they are helped, she said.

“Later retirement buffers cognitive decline,” Ms. Staudinger observed, as active workers maintain social and intellectual stimulation and continue learning in ways that benefit the brain’s plasticity instead of letting it atrophy from disuse.

A number of challenges exist for this expanded older workforce, speakers noted:

• It’s not always easy to match up their abilities with where jobs are expected to be most available. Some may never have received the kind of technology training that would prepare them for specialized fields, and others may become ill-suited in later years for physical trades like welding or serving as aides who assist the frail population with daily tasks.

• Retraining to add new skills would help many workers in mid-life or later, but costs of any new private education can be prohibitive for the individuals, and their supervisors often overlook them to prioritize younger workers for company-sponsored education. 

• There are growing concerns that employers get away with age discrimination by shedding older workers in a way that would be far harder in cases of racial or sexual discrimination. And once they’ve been jobless, older workers experience more difficulty than younger ones in finding new employment.

“The longer you’re unemployed, the more likely it is that you’ll remain unemployed,” stated Carl Van Horn, director of the Heidrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, who noted few programs exist nationally like one at Rutgers that focuses on assisting older, out-of-work individuals.

Multiple speakers suggested that the restructuring of the nation’s age demographics and labor pool actually calls for a societal shift in the perception of life stages. Instead of ending schoolwork in young adulthood, filling a single occupation into one’s 60s and entering non-productive retirement thereafter, people and institutions need to use continuing education programs and other means to assist transitions through various roles.

If these potential late-life contributors aren’t kept engaged, it’s society — and not just those aged members — that could end up the loser.

“You could say older adults are the world’s only increasing natural resource,” Dr. Fried said, though adding some new thinking about it is needed.

She acknowledged, “We don’t have a road map on this one.”

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


Expert Q&A