Should Older Americans Feel Gloomy About Their Job Prospects?

Posted Wednesday, March 21st, 2012  | Comments (4) rule
Cahill's photo Kevin E. Cahill, PhD
Research Economist
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Boston College

Phone: 617.552.9195
Sweet's photo Stephen Sweet, PhD
Organizational Studies Expert
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Boston College

Phone: 617.552.9195

The trend toward earlier and earlier retirement is over and has been for more than two decades. Older Americans are now staying in the labor force later in life and forging new and, in many ways, “nontraditional,” paths to retirement. It is common for older workers to switch employers (in fact, the majority of career workers do so) and it is also common for older workers to change careers, or to request changes in the terms of their existing jobs. With older workers in mind, this blog is geared toward forward-looking employees who might want to know where they can expect to see job openings in the years ahead and how to best position themselves to take advantage of those opportunities.

Job openings can come about in two ways: by creation and by replacement. Economic growth, technological innovation, and demographic changes create new jobs. When workers move up in their careers or leave their jobs for other reasons — because they retire, relocate, or change employers — they open the door for others to replace them. We start our discussion with a focus on where the new jobs will be.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes 10-year projections of the labor force every two years. For the period 2010 to 2020, the two industries with the largest employment growth in terms of sheer numbers, by far, are (1) health care and social assistance and (2) professional and business services. Within health care, the largest percentage gains will come from home health care services (6.1% annually) and individual and family services (5.5% annually). Within the professional and business services category, the largest percentage gains are projected to come from management, scientific, and technical consulting services (4.7% annually) and computer systems design and related services (3.9% annually).

One strategy that some older workers can use to navigate late-career job changes is not by changing what they do (i.e., bookkeeping), but instead changing the industry in which they perform this work (for example, from manufacturing, where the number of jobs is in steady decline, to health care). Another strategy, especially for older workers in occupations where job opportunities are diminishing, is to consider a more substantial career change. Consider that among the top fastest growing health care occupations projected between 2010 and 2020 are personal care aides, home health aides, and physical therapist aides. While some fast-growing occupations, such as biochemists and biophysicists, require significant time and financial investments in formal education, these fast-growing health care occupations have education requirements that consist of an Associate degree only or short-term on-the-job training. These jobs offer real possibilities for older workers who might want to make a shift to a different line of work.

Alternately older workers may benefit by considering opportunities that are projected to emerge through the process of replacement. These jobs include work as cashiers, retail salespersons, waiters and waitresses, and customer service representatives. Although these types of jobs tend to offer lower pay and fewer benefits, they commonly provide the types of flexibility that older workers value and require minimal qualifications for entry level positions.

The $64,000 question (unadjusted for inflation) is whether employers will be interested in hiring older workers. One reason why not is because older workers tend to have salary requirements that are higher than those of younger workers – higher than their increased productivity is worth, dollar for dollar. They also have higher health care and life insurance costs, and higher costs associated with such fringe benefits as vacation time and sick time (which tend to increase with tenure). Older workers may also be more likely than others to request part-time and flexible work arrangements, making them less attractive to employers, all else equal. And age discrimination continues to be a concern, despite numerous efforts to counter the tendency for some employers to view older workers with disfavor.

On the other hand, older workers offer many things that are unique and extremely valuable to employers, not least of which is a lifetime of experience. Today’s older workers are also healthier than older workers used to be and jobs are generally less physically demanding than they once were. Plus, Americans today are more highly educated than at any other time in history. One in four Americans currently aged 65 to 74 years has a college degree. Among the following cohort, those aged 55 to 64, nearly one in three Americans has a college degree. All of these factors bode in favor of the prospects that older adults who seek employment will be able to find jobs in the future as the economic recovery (hopefully) continues. But also, as Barry Bluestone and Mark Melnik have pointed out, there simply might not be a sufficient number of younger workers to fill all of the new jobs that will be created in the future. This suggests that older workers might not only be well positioned to find work, they may even be able to negotiate personalized work arrangements that fit their needs and preferences, as employers are increasingly receptive to extending flexible work to valued employees.

We are optimistic for the future of older workers and the prospects that they will be able to locate employment. For some this will involve retraining in their current occupation. For others it will require rethinking how to reposition their existing talents with new employers, perhaps even in a new line of work. In our next blog, we consider why employers, especially those in the health care sector, would be wise to consider older workers as a less than fully tapped resource.


Bluestone, Barry and Mark Melnik. 2010. “After the Recovery: Help Needed.” Northeastern University, Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

Cahill, Kevin E., Michael D. Giandrea, and Joseph F. Quinn. 2011. “How Does Occupational Status Impact Bridge Job Prevalence?” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Working Paper, 447 (July).

Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Health Expenditures by Age, 2004 Age Tables. Retrieved from

Johnson, Richard W., Jeanette Kawachi, and Eric K. Lewis. (2009). “Older Workers on the Move: Recareering in Later Life.” AARP Research Report, pp. 1-55.

Munnell, Alicia H., Kevin E. Cahill, Andrew D. Eschtruth, and Steven A. Sass. 2004. “The Graying of Massachusetts: Aging, the New Rules of Retirement, and the Changing Workforce.” The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC).

Quinn, Joseph F., Cahill, Kevin E., & Giandrea, Michael D. (2011). Early Retirement: The Dawn of a New Era? TIAA-CREF Institute Policy Brief (July).

Sweet, Stephen and Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes. (2010). Talent Pressures and the Aging Workforce: Responsive Action Steps for the Manufacturing Sector (Industry Sector Report 1.1). Chestnut Hill, MA: Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Retrieved from TMISR01_Manufacturing.pdf.

Sweet, Stephen and Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes. (2010). Talent Pressures and the Aging Workforce: Responsive Action Steps for the Health Care & Social Assistance Sector (Industry Sector Report 2.1.0). Chestnut Hill, MA: Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Retrieved from TMISR02_HealthCare.pdf.

Sweet, Stephen and Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes. (2010). Talent Pressures and the Aging Workforce: Responsive Action Steps for the Accommodation and Food Services Sector (Industry Sector Report 4.1.0). Chestnut Hill, MA: Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Retrieved from TMISR04_Accommodation.pdf

Sweet, Stephen and Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes. (2010). Talent Pressures and the Aging Workforce: Responsive Action Steps for the Retail Sector (Industry Sector Report 3.1.0). Chestnut Hill, MA: Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Retrieved from TMISR03_Retail.pdf

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections, 2010-20; Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012 (131st Edition) Washington, DC, 2011 (Tables 230 and 231); Retrieved from

Comments (4) for "Should Older Americans Feel Gloomy About Their Job Prospects?"

Who Are You Calling Old?

Posted Wednesday, March 7th, 2012  | Comments (5) rule
Samantha Greenfield
Employer Engagement Specialist
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Boston College

Phone: 617.552.9117
Kim Lee De Angelis, PhD
Research Associate
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Boston College
Phone: 617.552.2890

In 2006, the Sloan Center on Aging & Work published a brief titled “How Old Are Today’s Older Workers?” by Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, center director, and Michael A. Smyer, former co-director. The brief offers a perspective that employers today would be wise to keep in mind.

In it, the researchers discussed the difficulty of pinning down what employers mean when they refer to “older workers,” “mature workers,” “senior workers,” and “experienced workers.” Here’s the problem. In times past, Dr. Pitt-Catsouphes and Dr. Smyer pointed out, a “mid-career worker seemed to become an older worker once they started to plan for retirement.” What’s more, the “status of being an older worker signaled the end of a career.” Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics showing many adults choosing to work past the age at which they could claim retirement benefits indicated to Dr. Pitt-Catsouphes and Dr. Smyer that a more dynamic view of age than proximity to eligibility for benefits was in order. They argued:

Today, many adults are working later into their 60s and 70s, and many make a gradual transition from full-time employment to full-time retirement by having a bridge job. It is no longer clear when adults move from a mid-career status into an older worker status.

The results of a 2009 survey conducted by offer further evidence that old ideas about “who is old” have lost their usefulness. One in five employers (21 percent) reported that as their employees approach retirement age, they ask to continue working. Most employers in that situation (86 percent) said they were happy to oblige, and for the following reasons:

  • Employers want to hold on to [older workers’] intellectual capital (65 percent)
  • Mature workers can help train and mentor others (61 percent)
  • Mature workers know how to weather a tough economy (42 percent)
  • Employers have more time to transition responsibilities (36 percent)

In a recent blog, Jacquelyn B. James, Ph.D., the Sloan Center’s research director, stated:

Today’s older adults have much to offer in terms of talent, energy and social contributions. Human development continues throughout the life span. Finding ways to reach this potential will have positive outcomes for both older adults and for society as a whole.

The new reality she describes is a challenge for managers and human resources administrators at a time when many workers nearing and passing retirement age are not, in fact, retiring, but instead are continuing to work and add value to their companies.

With this demographic and cultural shift, the words employers and employees use to describe age and the old ideas that underlie the words must change. The 2006 Sloan Center brief quoted Victor Marshall, a scholar at the Institute on Aging at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as follows:

Conceptions of “who is old” vary greatly across cultures, across historical periods, and by industrial sector. We found in the IT sector that workers are considered old if they have children. Ballet dancers and professional athletes may be considered old in their twenties or thirties, airline pilots in their fifties, and Supreme Court Justices in their eighties. It is important to investigate how employers and workers informally designate workers as young or old, and whether such designations are associated with the attribution of positive characteristics (e.g. wisdom and responsibility) or negative characteristics (e.g. unable to learn new technology).

So, who are you calling old? A more perceptive and precise vocabulary is the gateway to new responses that can energize talent management and retention initiatives now and in the future.


Kim Lee DeAngelis, Ph.D., is a research associate at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. She focuses on current case studies and workshops related to the center’s research. Previously, she was director of human resources at Talbots, Inc. She earned her doctorate in human and organizational systems at Fielding Graduate University, where she conducted research on Generation X in the workplace.

Samantha Greenfield is an employer engagement specialist at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work, connecting employers around the world with the center’s research projects. She has worked in the human resources department of two large Boston law firms. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Elon University, in North Carolina.

Comments (5) for "Who Are You Calling Old?"

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