In earlier generations, when the lifespan was shorter, the markers of aging were readily observable. Old people’s hair was gray, and bodies were stooped or gnarled due to arthritis and hard labor. Old people shuffled rather than walked. They sat on porches in rocking chairs. Old ladies gathered to knit or crochet and old men played gin or pinochle.

All that has gone out the window as our lifespan has lengthened. While gray hair is still an indicator of aging, it is no longer a benchmark that the end is near. Aging adults are now (thankfully) encouraged, supported, and praised for remaining active. Work has changed so that our bodies no longer bear the adverse brunt of labor. Walking is now a healthy activity as well as a sport. We remain socially engaged in broader coalitions and on social media platforms that didn’t exist 30 years ago.

Aging in the Workforce

But there is one area that has been reluctant to embrace this expanded notion of aging: the workplace. The rampant ageism that exists in the corporate universe has, up until now, continued to systematically cull the aging worker from payroll rosters based solely on age. This is due, in part, to defining eligibility for benefits based on age, like Social Security and Medicare.

Nowadays, people earning a living seem to have busted through that 65-year-old birthday barrier and are found, in increasing numbers in folks who are decades beyond 65!  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The labor force is expected to increase by 8.9 million, or 5.5 percent, from 2020 to 2030. The labor force of people ages 16 to 24 is projected to shrink by 7.5 percent from 2020 to 2030. Among people age 75 years and older, the labor force is expected to grow by 96.5 percent over the next decade.”

Why are More of Us Continuing to Work instead of Retiring?

Boomers were raised with a notion that “retirement” was a reward for a lifetime of work. In marketing “retirement”, we were sold a vision of “active living” including golf, bridge, happy homogenous groups of people eating together, exercising, and (for those who drink), sipping wine or cocktails as the sun set. But here is what is really happening: We aren’t retiring! 

We are changing the focus of how we work, where we work, and what we expect out of our jobs.

Economics and politics made waiting to 68 or 70 a better bet, so many Boomers extended their working lives. Some of us had to continue to work, so retirement was never in the picture. Unless we were forced to retire because of regulations or mandatory retirement clauses, many of us stayed in our job because we liked what we were doing.

Renewal instead of Retirement: Aging in the 21st Century

We are in uncharted territory here. The nature of work is evolving and so must our ideas about retirement. People have never lived this long, this well, and had the capacity to contribute to the growth and development of our economy so fully ever before in history. We need to re-define “retirement” and replace it with the concept of renewal.

For some workers, renewal will mean leaving a job and transitioning to a different pace of life. For others, it may mean going part-time, with fewer hours or different responsibilities. Many, like me, will become entrepreneurs and continue to find ways to contribute and grow, and earn a living. My idealistic hope is that such renewal will be a choice for all, rather than an economic or social necessity.

To achieve this, we must strive to confront ageism in all its forms, but especially within the workplace, where preservation of the past and creation of the future are in constant flux. Those of us who have transitioned into different careers have left behind gaps in experience, knowledge, and skill that don’t seem to be filled by Gen-Xers, Millennials, or Gen-Zers. There are fewer of them to fill the many spots that eventually will be left open as, inevitably, Boomers move out of the workforce.

Recruitment, Retention, and Support of an Aging Workforce

I won’t devote a lot of space to calling out the ageism and stereotyping of older adults as technologically challenged, slow to accept new ideas, and out-of-touch, but it is at the core of what is undoubtedly lost opportunity to capitalize on wisdom and experience that may just be central to our survival. Re-defining the length of our work life may be key to our economic stability.

Study after study demonstrates the value of older workers. They are reliable, take fewer days off (no quiet quitting for them!), have a solid work ethic, are more motivated to learn new skills, know how to talk with people and listen, contribute history and context for many aspects of business, and want to share their knowledge and skills. Why wouldn’t you want to hire or keep such a valued asset?

Financial Consequences of Boomers Retiring

My understanding of how we fund Social Security tells me that the more workers we have, the more contributions are made to Social Security. If there are fewer workers, then there are fewer dollars being collected in payroll taxes. Seems logical that we need to have lots of people working so that more money goes in than is paid out.

Statistically speaking, Boomers make up a large chunk of the population. Gen-X are fewer in number, and Millennials are still fewer. This poses a threat to the funding of Social Security. Given the declining supply of workers, it also makes sense to retain and support those workers who continue to enjoy working, continue to contribute, and find purpose and meaning in their contributions.

What Do You Want to Do with the Next Twenty Years?

Because I want additional income over and above what I receive from Social Security, I am listed on a number of job posting websites. I get daily emails about remote work available in a variety of industries that my skill set would fit. Too often when I apply, I don’t get a response. In one case, I actually followed up and forced the question. While the person I spoke with never directly addressed my age, it was implicit throughout our conversation.

Of course, I could be imagining things, but somehow I doubt it. I just wish there were some way that I could confront it and break through that barrier. Bottom line is older workers should be encouraged to remain on the job if they are so inclined.  We must re-think what role the aging worker can play in our economy, so that all workers can benefit.

2 responses to “The Nature of Work Is Evolving and So Must Our Ideas About Retirement”

  1. nan sullivan Avatar
    nan sullivan

    ageism is definitely there-i encountered it last month in one of my many part time gigs i am exploring. never fear-starting something tomorrow that may be better suited-always think of a rejection as something better coming along-it is the universe seeing what we do not.

  2. Art Johnson Avatar
    Art Johnson

    As a Boomer, I feel that much of what you say is very true. The declining workforce as we leave, is a concern for the health of our nation and social security. I retired two years early at 73, because of health concerns and the time they required for my wife and myself. (My goal was 75.) My hearing loss was impacting my job interactions too. But I was supported by my supervisor because of the wisdom and communication skills I provided.
    The technology available today has helped compensate for some of the loss incurred by aging. But I’m still not who I was at 25, 40, even 65. The humor that circles around aging can be fun and an acknowledgement to the world that we are changing and still real. It says we can see the bigger picture, and appreciate the life cycle. But when it is weaponized, it is cruel. It is getting society to value the skills of being able to see the bigger picture, the wisdom from experience, and grit it takes to on find ways to see a task through to completion, that needs to be addressed. In a society that values speed, prestige, winning, and money over honesty and compassion -it is a daunting task.
    I want to be engaged and feel like I’m contributing to society. I’m holding/viewing the changes that are happening to me personally as road signs putting me on a new path on which to do that. I am taking on the challenge in my own way hoping it will open financial doors along the way, because putting 75 on a resume is a no go. Either way, I will be adding to the composite of society. It may not be much but as Mother Teresa said, (paraphrased) What I do is just a drop in the ocean, but if I didn’t the ocean would be on drop less.

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