Advances in medicine and efforts to prevent chronic diseases are lengthening the healthy life span of Americans. They are also helping create a new and highly productive segment of the workforce: seniors.
Consider these facts: workers over 55 represent the only age group in which participation in the labor force is growing, in contrast to the steady decline among younger workers. Even more striking, there has been a tripling in the ranks of workers 65 and over, from 2 percent of the workforce in 2000 to 6 percent today.
We are part of this demographic. If someone had asked us 40 years ago if we’d still be working this hard and essentially full time after the conventional age of retirement, we’d probably have said, “Are you kidding?”
Of course, not all seniors are working by choice. Indeed, in what we call the age of longevity, some of them fear running out of money more than they fear dying.
Older workers aren’t just part-time greeters at Walmart or grocery store baggers. About 60 percent of workers age 65 and older now have full-time jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And many of them are job creators. If you think of think entrepreneurs as 20-somethings building new technology in their parents’ garages, think again. In the United States, the highest rate of entrepreneurship has shifted to the 55-64 age group, with people over 55 almost twice as likely to found successful companies as those between 20 and 34, according to the Kauffman Foundation. Older Americans have more innovation potential than 25-year-olds, suggesting that innovators really do get better with age.
This shifting employment landscape is made possible largely because people in late adulthood are healthier today than at any time in the past. Across the developed world, diseases of aging are being pushed back. As the New York Times recently reported, “It looks as if people in the United States and some other wealthy countries are, unexpectedly, starting to beat back the diseases of aging. The leading killers are still the leading killers — cancer, heart disease, stroke — but they are occurring later in life, and people in general are living longer in good health.”
The story of aging is no longer one of steady decline and decay. Instead, most Americans will be healthy until later in life and experience rapid, steep declines and death at later ages than in the past. This is what Stanford’s James Fries calls “the compression of morbidity.”
Yet many employers are reluctant to hire older people because they fear skyrocketing costs. They tend to think of young workers as “cheap” when it comes to health costs. But younger workers have families, often young children, who face medical conditions that push up health care costs.
Ageist myths deprive employers of excellent workers. And medical technology will only make such workers better.
Older individuals were once regarded as the old gray mares of the workforce, plodding and slow. The influential psychologist Erik Erikson believed that at age 65 people should realize that their creative days are over and what follows is a time of taking stock of their lives and preparing for death without fear.
That may have been the case when Erikson was developing his concept of life stages in the mid-1900s. But it isn’t true today. A major international study, the COGITO Study, punched a sizable hole in the commonly held notion that veteran employees are unproductive seat-warmers.
This study compared 101 young adults (ages 20 to 31) and 103 older adults (ages 65 to 80) on 12 different tasks over 100 days. These included tests of cognitive abilities, perceptual speed, episodic memory, and working memory. Researchers expected that the younger workers would perform more consistently over time while the older workers would be more variable. But the data showed something very different. Older workers’ productivity was more consistent than that of younger workers.
Some people are afraid that “greedy geezers” will gobble up the lion’s share of resources. But this idea reflects a contrived generational conflict. A good example of the shortcomings of this kind of thinking can be seen in the dire predictions that were made when women began their massive entry into the US labor market. Critics warned that men would lose their jobs and families would splinter. None of that came true. In fact, the sharp increase in women’s participation in the labor force actually correlated with a rise in male employment rates.
The same thing is happening with older workers. Recent cross-national studies show that higher employment of older individuals is positively correlated with higher employment of the young.
Forward-looking employers need to embrace these new data and work actively to counter widespread ageist attitudes as the senior population grows ever more healthy and interested in being part of the workforce. That would be a win-win scenario for everybody.
Rosalind C. Barnett is a senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University. They are the authors of “The Age of Longevity: Re-Imagining Tomorrow for Our New Long Lives” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).