Why Seniors Are on the Job and Staying There

The Great Recession and its aftermath heightened financial insecurity, especially among people of color and in lower-income brackets. But that’s not the only reason.

Elizabeth Fideler is a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. She holds a Harvard doctorate in education, specifically administration, planning and social policy.  
National Journal
Elizabeth F. Fideler
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Elizabeth F. Fideler
Feb. 13, 2014, 11:08 a.m.

Re­mem­ber those bright, mul­ti­colored Cuis­enaire rods used in ele­ment­ary school to teach kids frac­tions and oth­er math­em­at­ic­al re­la­tion­ships? I was im­me­di­ately re­minded of those learn­ing aids when I saw a Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics chart de­pict­ing labor force par­ti­cip­a­tion rates in 1992, 2002, 2012, and pro­jec­ted for 2022, by age. The BLS chart looks like Cuis­enaire rods in a rising stair­case ar­range­ment, ex­cept the steps are go­ing down for young and prime age groups.

In fact, the over­all labor-force par­ti­cip­a­tion rate — of em­ployed and un­em­ployed people will­ing, want­ing, or need­ing to work — is de­clin­ing, and the de­cline is pro­jec­ted to con­tin­ue to 2022. In con­trast, labor-force par­ti­cip­a­tion rates of men and wo­men 55 and older are rising. For ex­ample, the rate for people 65 to 74 (20.4 per­cent in 2002, 26.8 per­cent in 2012) is pro­jec­ted to reach nearly 32 per­cent in 2022. (While “work­ing-age per­sons” in the U.S. labor force are defined as those 16-64, the ac­tu­al par­ti­cip­a­tion rate in­cludes seni­or cit­izens who work or want to, full or part time.)

Even the par­ti­cip­a­tion rate for people 75 and older, com­par­at­ively low, is pro­jec­ted to rise (from 7.6 per­cent in 2012 to 10.5 per­cent 10 years later). At the same time, BLS fig­ures show that the U.S. pop­u­la­tion is grow­ing slowly, and it is be­com­ing older and more ra­cially and eth­nic­ally di­verse.

Why is the par­ti­cip­a­tion rate of older work­ers in­creas­ing re­l­at­ive to the oth­er age groups? At the same time that baby boomers are reach­ing con­ven­tion­al re­tire­ment age and, ac­cord­ing to the BLS, ex­it­ing the work­force in large num­bers, what holds many older work­ers on the job when re­tire­ment, grand­chil­dren, and leis­ure-time activ­it­ies beck­on?

At first glance, the phe­nomen­on would ap­pear to be ex­plained by the eco­nomy and wor­ries over in­ad­equate re­tire­ment sav­ings. Job growth is hardly ro­bust; many of the long-term un­em­ployed are un­der­stand­ably dis­cour­aged; work­ing poor who be­long to ra­cial and eth­nic minor­ity groups are es­pe­cially hard hit. The Great Re­ces­sion and its af­ter­math heightened fin­an­cial in­sec­ur­ity for most Amer­ic­ans, es­pe­cially among people of col­or and in lower-in­come brack­ets. The poverty rate among blacks, His­pan­ics, and di­vor­cées in re­tire­ment his­tor­ic­ally is in the double-di­gits, So­cial Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion fig­ures show.

Oth­er factors in­clude the avail­ab­il­ity of em­ploy­er-based health in­sur­ance and oth­er be­ne­fits that keep many people work­ing; hikes in eli­gib­il­ity for col­lect­ing So­cial Se­cur­ity be­ne­fits that can en­cour­age delayed re­tire­ment; and a shift from defined be­ne­fits to defined-con­tri­bu­tion pen­sion plans that let be­ne­fits ac­crue with ad­di­tion­al years of work.

To be sure, great­er longev­ity coupled with bet­ter health and fit­ness are also ma­jor factors af­fect­ing labor-force par­ti­cip­a­tion rates of older Amer­ic­ans. Yet, there is still more to it than that. In Wo­men Still at Work (Row­man & Lit­tle­field, 2012) and Men Still at Work (Feb­ru­ary 2014), I set out the primary reas­ons older wo­men and men give for re­main­ing in the paid work­force. They speak of lov­ing what they do, the sat­is­fac­tion they get from con­trib­ut­ing ex­per­i­ence, know-how, and in­sti­tu­tion­al know­ledge, not just from mak­ing money. They typ­ic­ally say they en­joy their cli­ents, pa­tients, or stu­dents. Some read­ily ad­mit to dread­ing bore­dom and an at­rophied in­tel­lect if they fully re­tire.

Draw­ing on what is known as “snow­ball sampling” and in-depth in­ter­view­ing, my re­search iden­ti­fied older men and wo­men (ran­ging in age from 60 to 90-plus) from all across the coun­try who are gen­er­ally prosper­ing in the paid work force, par­tic­u­larly those who are well edu­cated and hold­ing pro­fes­sion­al jobs in a wide vari­ety of fields. In con­trast to those with lim­ited edu­ca­tion and skills em­ployed in low-wage jobs who must work simply to make ends meet, or those whose poor health or fam­ily care­giv­ing re­spons­ib­il­it­ies force exit from the work­force, these seni­ors are for­tu­nate to have a choice in the tim­ing of re­tire­ment.

Re­flect­ing the demo­graph­ic shifts of our aging and di­ver­si­fy­ing Amer­ic­an work­force, 8 per­cent of the re­spond­ents to each of my sur­veys are black, His­pan­ic, or Asi­an. All are well edu­cated and highly ac­com­plished, pro­duct­ive, and in­de­pend­ent. The men and wo­men men­tioned here, rep­res­ent­ing di­verse eth­nic and ra­cial groups, are ex­em­plary:

  • Dr. Peter MacLeish is pro­fess­or and chair of the de­part­ment of neuro­bi­o­logy and dir­ect­or of the Neur­os­cience In­sti­tute at More­house School of Medi­cine.
  • Busi­ness­wo­man Es­th­er Novak, a nat­ive of Peru, is the founder and CEO of Van­guard­Comm, a full-ser­vice con­sult­ing, mar­ket­ing, and com­mu­nic­a­tions firm serving cor­por­a­tions and non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tions and spe­cial­iz­ing in mul­ti­cul­tur­al and niche mar­kets.
  • After serving as deputy dir­ect­or of the Edu­ca­tion, Know­ledge, and Re­li­gion unit of the Ford Found­a­tion and then as pres­id­ent and CEO of the Na­tion­al Board for Pro­fes­sion­al Teach­ing Stand­ards, Joseph Aguer­rebere re­cently joined the Of­fice of the Chan­cel­lor of the Cali­for­nia State Uni­versity Sys­tem as as­so­ci­ate dir­ect­or for Teach­er Edu­ca­tion and Pub­lic School Pro­grams.
  • E. Eth­el­bert Miller dir­ects the Afric­an Amer­ic­an Re­source Cen­ter at Howard Uni­versity and chairs the board of the In­sti­tute for Policy Stud­ies. He is also a poet and serves on the na­tion­al ad­vis­ory board of and con­trib­utes to Voice Male magazine.
  • Robert Git­tens is vice pres­id­ent for pub­lic af­fairs at North­east­ern Uni­versity.
  • Dr. Isa­bel Yo­der is as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or of ra­di­ology at Har­vard Med­ic­al School and part-time ra­di­olo­gist at a Mas­sachu­setts Gen­er­al Hos­pit­al satel­lite loc­a­tion.
  • Shar­on Har­ley is as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or in the De­part­ment of Afric­an Amer­ic­an Stud­ies at the Uni­versity of Mary­land (Col­lege Park), and has de­voted her ca­reer to teach­ing and writ­ing about race, gender, and wo­men’s work.

That six of these sev­en in­di­vidu­als are af­fil­i­ated with uni­versit­ies is note­worthy. Man­dat­ory re­tire­ment is long ab­sent from aca­deme and age dis­crim­in­a­tion is less likely to oc­cur there, com­pared with the busi­ness world. Moreover, per­cep­tions of “old” are chan­ging al­most every­where. Har­ley can at­test to that: “Thanks to my hair style and clothes and be­ing in de­cent shape, I look much young­er than I really am! A pos­it­ive work-life bal­ance helps me to man­age stress and is really im­port­ant to me. I don’t need anti-de­press­ants. I am blessed with spir­itu­al whole­ness.”

Men still out­num­ber wo­men in the work­force at all ages, but older men are the second-fast­est grow­ing seg­ment of the U.S. labor force be­cause the par­ti­cip­a­tion rate of older fe­males is even high­er. Col­lect­ively, they are opt­ing to work well past con­ven­tion­al re­tire­ment age while bal­an­cing the de­mands of work, fam­ily, and the wider com­munity — many make time for vo­lun­teer­ing — with per­son­al in­terests and needs.

Men Still at Work makes a spe­cial point of com­par­ing the genders on such meas­ures as ca­reer field, length of ca­reer, time out for care­giv­ing, em­ploy­ment status, and earn­ing power. It iden­ti­fies sim­il­ar­it­ies and dif­fer­ences in the ca­reers of men and wo­men who came of age in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s when ex­pect­a­tions for both genders were dif­fer­ent and op­por­tun­it­ies for wo­men much more lim­ited.

Wo­men in par­tic­u­lar are apt to point out that they have worked hard to get where they are and have no in­ten­tion of stop­ping now. As Novak puts it, “Do not let any­one talk you out of work­ing as long as you wish. Age is just a num­ber. In­terest and en­ergy are what count.”

The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion. Email us.

What We're Following See More »
Democrats Taking Aim at Gary Johnson
4 minutes ago

"Democrats panicked by third-party candidates drawing support away from Hillary Clinton are ramping up their attacks against Gary Johnson and warning that a vote for a third party is a vote for Donald Trump. Liberal groups are passing around embarrassing videos of Johnson and running ads against him warning about his positions on issues like climate change that are important to young voters and independents."

Dutch Investigators: MH17 Was Downed by Russian Launcher
7 minutes ago

Russo-Western relations are getting thornier all the time. "Dutch-led criminal investigators said Wednesday they have solid evidence that a Malaysian jet was shot down by a Buk missile moved into eastern Ukraine from Russia. Wilbert Paulissen, head of the Central Crime Investigation department of the Dutch National Police, said communications intercepts showed that pro-Moscow rebels had called for deployment of the mobile surface-to-air weapon, and reported its arrival in rebel-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine." Russia, of course, is denying culpability.

Arizona Republic Endorses Clinton
11 minutes ago

In its roughly 125-year history, the Arizona Republic has never endorsed a Democratic candidate for president. Until now. "The 2016 Republican candidate is not conservative and he is not qualified," the editors write, as they throw their support to Hillary Clinton.

Deal on Flint Aid Likely to Avert Shutdown
15 minutes ago

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have reached a deal which is likely to avert a government shutdown. The biggest impediment had been the GOP's refusal to include funding for Flint water system reconstruction in the continuing resolution, and this solution provides an alternative measure likely to appease both sides. The funding for Flint will be included in the Water Resources and Development Act as an amendment to the version passed by the House of Representatives, one which will be passed in the senate. It now appears likely that Congress will in fact be able to keep the government open.

Reid Blocks Tech Bill Over “Broken Promise”
16 hours ago

Monday night's debate may have inspired some in Congress, as Senate Minority Leader has decided to take a stand of his own. Reid is declining to allow a vote on a "bipartisan bill that would bolster U.S. spectrum availability and the deployment of wireless broadband." Why? Because of a "broken promise" made a year ago by Republicans, who have refused to vote on confirmation for a Democratic commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission to a second term. Harry Reid then took it a step further, invoking another confirmation vote still outstanding, that of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.