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Older Workers

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Written by Phyllis Snyder, Vice President, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

Traditional retirement at age 65 or younger is a less frequent choice for many older adults today. The U.S. Department of Commerce projects a 67 percent increase in older worker participation in the workforce between 2015 and 2040, with older workers comprising 21 percent of the labor force by 2040. 

This extra time in the workforce can be valuable for older adults but it can also benefit society. However, in order to make it truly productive, we need to reconsider how we assess, guide, train, and hire mature adults.

For some boomers, increased longevity means that the retirement savings they have accumulated are not adequate to support their remaining years, a situation made worse by economic downturns in recent years. For others, the choice to continue working is driven by a desire to remain mentally active and engaged or to use their skills and talent during this period of life to contribute to the betterment of society. Both groups, those who need continued income to support themselves as well as those who choose to continue to work because of passion or commitment, face numerous challenges, from overcoming the stereotypes that many employers hold about the value of older workers to identifying the types of training they need to remain competitive in their existing field or to prepare them to transition to a new area.

Many of those who are eager to continue working are seeking greater flexibility in their hours and roles. However, it is not only employers who harbor stereotypes of older workers; training and education programs offered through the public workforce system or academic institutions frequently are insensitive to the specific needs and backgrounds of an older population.

Meeting society's and individuals' needs

A vital part of using the talent and skills of older adults more effectively relates to identifying or, in some cases, creating roles that meet emerging societal needs and that can leverage what the mature adult has learned from both formal and informal roles and training.

One example is in the healthcare field, where demand is growing and some of the new roles, like patient navigator, require less medical knowledge and background and more experience guiding patients through a complex system. In The Encore Career Handbook, a guide to finding ways to “make a living and a difference in the second half of life,” Marci Alboher of Encore.org cites this as one example of an emerging role that is well-suited to the experience and priorities of older adults.

Financial advantages to working longer

Encouraging people ages 55 and older to continue to work can meet the expressed needs of employers who have difficulty finding workers with the education, experience, and attitude many mature workers have developed. In addition, if mature workers remain in the labor force longer, they will contribute significantly to reducing federal deficits and debt, based on research findings of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute. According to an article by Henry J. Aaron, researchers found that during the next 30 years, additional federal tax contributions from mature workers who remain in the labor force will be $2.7 trillion more than anticipated. Government outlay might decrease by $600 billion – savings derived from decreased draw down of Medicare and Social Security – a lower rate that results from using more accurate labor force participation rates rather than the outdated rates currently used by the Social Security Administration.

This does not mean that we should raise the qualifying age for Social Security and Medicare; some people cannot continue to work because of medical or other issues. It does mean that we need to do everything possible to promote and support the continued participation of older adults in the workforce.

An example of a recent initiative to test potential solutions to determining the best employment models for older adults is the Aging Worker Initiative (AWI), a three-year project that ended in December 2012. Ten regions competed successfully for funding from the US Department of Labor to test new collaborative models for serving mature workers who were unemployed but needed to find a job. In the majority of regions, the funding was awarded to the public workforce system but the project encouraged collaboration with local businesses and educational institutions. The Atlantic Philanthropies separately funded the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning to provide technical assistance to the ten regions.

Both funders hoped that the work done by the sites to affirm the employability and value of mature workers to employers and to identify the appropriate guidance, education, and training to prepare them for new jobs and careers would highlight the most critical challenges and barriers to hiring mature workers and lead to policy recommendations that would help improve opportunities. AWI demonstrated that older workers could find jobs, given appropriate support, preparation, and training. By the project’s end, more than half of its 4,000 participants were employed, and many more were still enrolled in training that would lead to new employment opportunities.

A final set of policy recommendations developed at the conclusion of the project was informed by the AWI site experiences, the findings of research studies commissioned during the final year of the project that also drew on other older adult studies and projects, and a policy summit to identify priority areas for policy change. Recommendations were grouped in three areas that can all contribute to changing the opportunities for older adults who seek to continue working and contributing to society.

Among the recommendations for action where philanthropic support could make a difference are the following: 

Raising awareness

  • Educate the workforce on the financial realities of retirement through the development and dissemination of financial literacy programs.
  • Work with business groups such industry associations to convey to business the potential benefits and opportunities associated with the aging workforce.

Inspiring Change

  • Consider offering financial incentives for employers to hire and train older workers to offset the common perception that mature workers can be more costly to employers.
  • Develop and provide employers with clear and effective tools for assessing talent management that could encourage them to make better use of experienced and competent older workers.

Improving the Workforce System

  • Continue and improve efforts to transform our culture to value workforce development and to understand the importance of a skilled workforce to our economy.

Philanthropic Support on Workforce Issues

A review of the grants awarded during the last few years by foundations that support initiatives related to older adults reveals that a relatively small number of grants have funded projects to address the challenges and needs of older adults who seek to remain in the workforce. We identified 25 grants that were related to workforce issues; 15 funded research efforts and only 10 supported pilot programs, several of which targeted a specific subgroup of the aging population. One of the most robust foundation initiatives is the MacArthur Foundation’s establishment of the MacArthur Research Network on an Aging Society. Among the key themes addressed by the twelve-member network of researchers and practitioners is “Development of a meaningful role for older people.”

While research efforts are key to defining and documenting the needs, interests, and challenges facing the older adult population, research alone will not change practices. The research can have greater impact in expanding opportunities for older adults to continue to contribute to society in either a paid or unpaid role if it is connected to support for program implementation, such as the piloting and testing of models that can influence the broader community. As businesses face talent shortages in specific areas, they are more likely to see the value of enlisting the talents of older adults if they can observe and adopt actual program models.

Several examples of grants that have furthered the development or expansion of models include the following:

  • The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awarded $481,975 to the National Opinion Research Center to “improve public understanding of aging and work, by increasing quality and quantity of coverage of the economics of the aging workforce.”
  • The W. K. Kellogg Foundation awarded $800,000 to the Gerontology Network of West Michigan “to increase literacy skills of elementary students in four Grand Rapids neighborhoods through the expansion of the Experience Corps Literacy Program.”
  • Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust awarded $150,000 to the Sun City Area Interfaith Services “to expand catering function at Birt’s Bistro for increased revenue and vocational training for re-careering older adults.”

In addition, several foundations, sometimes in collaboration with business, have supported projects that promote and test encore careers, where the emphasis is not primarily on earning a wage but on creating social impact. Encore.org has been at the forefront of developing this pathway and has worked with a network of projects throughout the country to facilitate the transition to this new stage of life.  In several communities, Encore.org has partnered with businesses and local organizations to implement Encore Fellowships. The Fellowships match professionals finishing their midlife careers with nonprofits in their area looking for specific expertise. The fellows can work either full or part time, receive a stipend for their work, and gain exposure to a new type of work environment.

Another focus of foundation support has been higher education, where grants help colleges and universities modify and develop training and education programs to prepare older adults for new roles. The American Association of Community Colleges’ Plus 50 Initiative aims to change the way programming and services are developed and implemented at community colleges for 50+ learners. Initially funded in 2008 by The Atlantic Philanthropies, the program started with 15 community colleges. After the economic recession, the program targeted helping those over 50 prepare for new jobs and careers and continued to add community colleges. The Lumina Foundation supported the involvement of an additional 18 community colleges that were working to increase the number of students in this population, especially those with some prior college credits, to complete credentials and degrees that can help them get hired. 7,192 students age 50 and over completed degrees or certificates at 18 colleges. New funding from the Deerbrook Charitable Trust will support expansion to 100 community colleges by 2015.

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There are several other areas where grantmakers could support older workforce issues:

  • Assist mature workers to document and present the full range of their competencies. Employers often judge candidates based on resumes that contain information about the jobs they have held in the past and the formal education they have received. Yet many adults, and particularly older adults, bring extensive experience and learning that they have gained outside the formal work and academic structures. Often, they have developed reasoning, communication, and interpersonal skills through volunteer activities in their communities, family caregiving, workshops they have attended, or during military service. With support to develop models that will help them codify and recognize the full range of their competencies, organizations serving older adults can assist them in documenting the value they can bring to new employers or new careers and they can present a more complete and realistic picture to potential employers.
  • Support pilot projects in sectors like energy and healthcare which have a high percentage of older adults in their workforce. Companies have begun to grapple with the challenges posed by the potential retirement of a large segment of their workforce in the next few years. Some of them have recognized the value of creating new roles, such as mentors, for these workers, allowing them to continue working while transferring their knowledge to younger colleagues. However, companies may not have the flexibility to find ways to retain and tap this talent pool. By addressing this challenge from a sectoral perspective, companies can be helped to develop solutions that are specific to their industry and that are more likely to be replicated.
  • Encourage the public sector workforce system to address the needs of the older workforce in collaboration with business and higher education. For older workers to gain long term employability, they need to choose jobs that are not likely to disappear in six months and that are in high-demand industries. The workforce system should provide information and guidance in navigating the new world of work while also helping jobseekers assess education and training options that will help them prepare for jobs with long-term potential. To shape effective opportunities, business and higher education must work with the workforce system to inform the identification of appropriate positions and to identify and develop appropriate training for this population. Collaboration between the government and private foundations can encourage the design of new models.

Source: Council for Adult and Experiential Learning January 2014


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AARP, Staying Ahead of the Curve 2013: Snapshot of the Wants and Needs of Older Workers, October 2013.

Bratter, Bernice, Project Renewment: The First Retirement Model for Career Women, Scribner, 2009.

Council on Adult and Experiential Learning, Maturity in the Workplace: Stories of Workers Aged 55+ on Their Journeys to New Work and Careers, 2011.

Freedman, Marc, The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife, Public Affairs, 2011.

MetLife Mature Market Institute, Buddy, Can You Spare a Job?: The MetLife Study of the New Realities of the Job Market for Aging Baby Boomers, October 2009.

MetLife Mature Market Institute, Transitioning Into Retirement: The MetLife Study of Baby Boomers at 65, April 2012.

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Organizations Focused on Workforce Issues for Older Adults


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