Palo Alto Weekly

- November 1, 2013

Aging of the U.S. workforce

'Reasons to keep working are not just about financial need,' scholar says

by Chris Kenrick

Workers, get ready.

Older colleagues, age 55 and over, will almost double their ranks as a share of the U.S. labor force between 2000 and 2020 — from 13.1 percent to 25.2 percent.

The jump reflects two trends: The overall population is aging, and an increasing number of older people are working longer.

A majority — but not all — of those will keep toiling because they need the money.

Those projections on the aging of the U.S. workforce emerged from a conference earlier this year convened by the Stanford Center on Longevity and Marsh & McLennan Companies.

Scholars and employers — including representatives of Bay Area companies like Wells Fargo, Intel and Cisco — gathered to discuss ways companies could adapt to the aging of the U.S. workforce. Major employers of blue-collar workers such as Target and Wal-Mart also participated.

"We think working longer is a good thing," said conference convener Martha Deevy, a senior research scholar and director of the Financial Security Division of the Stanford Center on Longevity.

"A lot of people, during the depths of the recession, were angrily saying, 'I have to work longer,' but now we're seeing that people are indeed working longer not only for financial reasons but also for engagement. They're saying, 'I want to do something.'"

Research at the Stanford Center on Longevity seeks to redefine life phases to account for the fact that people now live longer lives and remain healthier in their later decades.

The center convenes employers, policymakers and scholars to discuss trends and "walk away with a set of questions everyone wants answered to effect change," Deevy said.

For example, in the case of the aging workforce, Deevy said, is it possible to create an objective measure of the value of an older worker's experience? How have countries in Europe and elsewhere — which are ahead of the U.S. on the aging of their workforces — managed to retain older workers?

She cited a major German automaker that found older workers met or exceeded productivity measures after the company made physical adaptations to the assembly line, such as placing chairs at the site.

"There was a lot of discussion about worker value and worker productivity, and whether we truly understand the true value of their experience and maturity," she said.

Older workers have greater emotional stability, fewer negative emotions, better ability to handle tense situations and fewer conflicts than their younger counterparts, Stanford Center on Longevity Director Laura Carstensen told conference participants.

Younger people do process new information faster and better, but acquisition of knowledge and skills does not stop at any age, she said. For most people, cognitive gain in knowledge and expertise compensates for age-related decline in processing speed.

Another hot topic had to do with designing "more flexible and nuanced retirement paths" for older workers," Deevy said.

"Oftentimes people in their 60s want to continue to work, but want to work differently — they want or need more flexibility," she said. "So there was a lot of discussion about, can you more effectively pre-plan someone's exist ramp over the course of several years, affording different and more flexible opportunities so you can retain them when you need them but give them the flexibility they're asking for?"

She acknowledged that alternative transitions can be "easier to talk about for white-collar workers, but it isn't just about white collar workers. The tougher discussions come in industries that have physically demanding, physically challenging jobs."

Another discussion was "multi-generational workforces — some industries find themselves with three generations working simultaneously together, and that's really unprecedented," she said.

Well-educated workers in particular are more likely to delay retirement than less-educated workers, and labor-force participation rates have risen primarily for older Americans who are college-educated and in the highest income groups, Deevy said in a recent blog titled "Surprising Reasons Boomers Are Working Longer."

"Research suggests the decision to keep working may not be exclusively about financial need," she said.

"There are many social, emotional and psychological benefits that come from work."

Among them, she said, are that working helps people avoid social isolation and keeps them connected to communities; working gives meaning to people's lives; working allows older people to use their knowledge and experience, stay physically and mentally healthy and can be a source of pleasure.

Of the 55-year-old to 74-year-old non-working population in 2008, 62 percent of them — or 16 million people — were healthy enough to still be working, according to the U.S. Census.

By 2020, 35 percent of men and 28 percent of women ages 65 to 74 will still be working, most of them full-time, according to projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"We're living longer and living healthier, even with chronic diseases, and as a whole the population is finding itself in a position where they can and should think about working longer," Deevy said.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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