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.  
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Elizabeth F. Fideler
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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.

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