A 20-Year View of the Labor Force

Posted Wednesday, October 31st, 2012  | Comments (2) rule
Why the job market may be warming up to older workers
Chris Morett, PhD, MPP
Office of Scheduling and Space Management, Rutgers University
Research Fellow
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Phone: 848-932-4312
Email: chris.morett@rutgers.edu

Some broad trends in work and the workforce are emerging that could influence the fate of older workers years down the line. Now would be a good time for American employers and policy makers to notice and start talking about them.

Trend 1: Older workers 20 years from now will have lived and breathed the career gospel of their time: Continuous self-improvement. Stability in a single job is yesterday’s religion. The next generation of older workers will have spent their careers keeping their skills fresh, seeking continual education and training, and going after jobs that offer—in addition to intrinsic satisfaction and pecuniary rewards—a chance for personal growth. Even if today’s quick pace of technological change speeds up even more over the next two decades, future cohorts of older workers won’t be taken by surprise.

Trend 2: Older workers in the future will be used to changing jobs and employers. If today’s veteran workers once envisioned a gold watch, tomorrow’s aging workers might not even get that reference. Figures released in September by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the average job tenure is 5.4 years among workers ages 25 and over and 10.3 years among workers ages 55 to 64.

Tomorrow’s older workers will be well-versed in negotiating job instability. (Call it career dynamism if you want a more positive term.) Their job search skills will stay sharp, they will keep their networks strong, and they will continually keep an eye on what’s happening in the labor market. If you can check the time on your smart phone, who needs a gold watch?

Shorter job tenure is related to the pace of technological change driving Trend 1, but it is distinct for two reasons. First, people switch companies for reasons other than technological change. Second, technological change might force workers to acquire new skills or change their job descriptions—but that could happen without switching employers.

Short job tenure matters for another reason. One reason why employers shy away from older workers is the fear that these workers will soon be lost to retirement. This disadvantage becomes moot if the projected tenures of workers across age groups are short.

Trend 3: Social media supercharge our social networking capabilities. They strengthen our connections and make our extended networks much more transparent, by revealing information about our friends’ friends’ friends in high places. This should have an equalizing effect on the social networks that people can exploit to move from one job to another. At the same time, the use of social networks by employers to identify job candidates will make it easier for older workers to compete for jobs, because it weakens the link between age (and other demographic characteristics) and the chance that hiring managers will see a resume.

Trend 4: Trends both positive and negative in health and well-being will also matter. For highly educated older workers who enjoy better access to health care, health issues will be less likely to result in even the perception of a compromise in job performance. Developments in preventing mental degeneration will also keep the members of this cohort working as they age. The picture is not entirely rosy, however. A recent study reported declines in life expectancy among less educated Americans. If this trend holds, less educated workers could experience a decline in their fortunes as health setbacks interfere with their careers.

Trend 5: The mix of jobs in terms of quality (high-skilled and high-paying; low-skilled and low-paying; temporary, contract, or otherwise marginalized) is always changing in response to such factors as occupational structure, technology, global competition, and policy changes. Trends in this realm are difficult to project, and even current realities are complex. But I mention job mix here because if, in 20 years, the job market is skewed to low-paying, low-skilled jobs, employers may be less discriminating—in both the objective and pejorative senses of the word. Therefore, developments that might reduce aggregate age inequality are quite bad for other reasons. Age discrimination is a metric that must coexist with others. To reverse a political aphorism, a sinking tide lowers all boats.

Cultural factors: The trends discussed above are largely structural, in that they affect worker skills and worker networks. Structural factors that make older workers more competitive will also alter cultural views and expectations in a way that helps aging workers. Cultural changes might also affect older workers’ self-image, which would influence the jobs they go for, their performance in interviews, and how they do on the job.

Even so, it would be naïve to think that negative stereotypes of aging workers will go away. To the extent that real differences between older and younger workers continue to exist, they will prop these stereotypes up. Of course, sometimes stereotypes persist well past the point where any real differences between groups have vanished.

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Work Longer – But How?

Posted Friday, October 19th, 2012  | Comments (2) rule
How one company is responding to the exit of older workers
Christine Herbes-Sommers' photo Christine Herbes-Sommers
Executive Producer,
Coming of Age in Aging America
Vital Pictures Inc
Sprecher's photo Susan Sprecher
Coming of Age in Aging America
Vital Pictures Inc

Seventy-five percent of Americans who are 50 and older expect to work well into the traditional period of retirement: many because they must; others by choice. Will they be able to do so?

Frank McVay, a registered nurse with WellStar Health Systems in Marrietta, Georgia, thought he would work into his seventies. Nursing, his second career, was his dream. Injured on the job four years ago, Frank called it quits earlier this year when twelve-hour shifts and lifting and moving heavy patients became too much. “I just couldn’t keep up with the demands of the job,” he says. He was 58 years old.

We, at Vital Pictures—a Boston-based film company —met Frank while researching our latest project: Coming of Age in Aging America, a multimedia, multiplatform PBS project slated for early 2014 .

Working longer sounds like a no-brainer for the active and educated new crop of retirees, but Frank’s story proves nothing is easy. Despite expectations, people continue to retire early – at age 64 for men; 62 for women. For occupations involving work that is physically demanding and mentally taxing, it’s even earlier: most nurses, for example, retire at age 55. A 2012 MetLife Mature Market reveals almost 40% of retirees cited health reasons for retiring sooner than anticipated.

Karen Mathews, the Director of Work Life Services for WellStar’s 12,000 employees, says she sees too many Franks: “Some of our best people are aging out of the jobs we rely on for quality service.” That impacts the bottom line, according to LeeAnna Spiva, WellStar’s Director of Nursing Research. WellStar’s nurses average 42 years of age —a big group heading into retirement at the same time that an aging population will increase demand for health services. According to Spiva, the company estimates that replacing an experienced nurse costs between $75,000 and $100,000. “So yes,” she says, “we’re highly motivated to hang on to the older worker.”

Since 2007, WellStar has been an incubator for ways to attract and keep the best talent all along the span of a career; a special focus is the older worker. WellStar’s initiatives include work/life programs and services that allow workers to ramp up or scale back on their work commitments in ways that fit their stage in life. One innovative program is the Nurse Research Fellowship program, which teams experienced nurses and scientists to conduct bedside research. Designed to engage nurses with new opportunities, the program also taps into the wisdom and knowledge of the experienced nurse.

Frank McVay was one of the first nurse research fellows. The results of the study he originated , “Discovering Ways That Influence the Older Nurse to Continue Bedside Practice,” were published last year in the journal Nurse Research and Practice. They confirmed his own nursing experience: The nurses surveyed were tired and stressed, but they still cared and they wanted and needed to work longer. Frank says, “We asked them what changes would make that possible. And they told us.”

The study’s findings led WellStar to take concrete actions to extend nurses’ tenure in their jobs:

  • Nurses participated in the design of a new hospital tower, suggesting features to make work more efficient and less physically taxing.
  • Nurse/patient ratios were lowered in some units.
  • WellStar is instituting a new electronic records system to streamline paperwork.
  • WellStar is investigating the purchase of ergonomically friendly equipment to lift and move patients.
  • Shorter shifts—four and eight hours—rather than 12, which is the industry standard, are on trial.

Today many companies across American business are aware of the mass exit of experience and talent that attends early retirement. WellStar is one of only a few that are taking on the hard task of rethinking work in order to extend the span of their employees’ careers.

Meanwhile, Frank continues working on his legacy. No longer a paid employee, he now volunteers his time to continue WellStar’s nurse research.

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Over 50 and Out of Work

Posted Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012  | Comments (8) rule

Susan M. Sipprelle
Writer, Journalist, and Founder of Tree of Life Productions
Email: susansipprelle@gmail.com

I thought I was set for life is the most common phrase I heard in interviews with older Americans who lost their jobs as a result of the recent recession. Over their careers, they had received promotions, praise, and bonuses from companies such as AT&T, Panasonic, Pfizer, and Weirton Steel. Then one day, sometime after the economic downturn began in 2008, they were told they were no longer needed and ushered out the door of the company where they had worked for more than 20 years.

They were shocked. They had children who depended on them, elderly parents who needed their support, and bills and mortgages to pay. Compounding the impact of sudden unemployment, they found that their homes were underwater and their hard-earned savings were plummeting in value as the U.S. housing and financial markets tumbled downward. One more blow: When they lost their jobs they also lost their health insurance.

In early 2010, inspired by Studs Terkel’s masterpieces Working and The Good War, filmmaker Sam Newman and I began conducting video interviews with these unemployed workers, born during the era of general economic prosperity and optimism in the years between 1946 and 1964. We posted 100 of the interviews on our website, Over 50 and Out of Work. The site is also a repository of video interviews with economists, psychologists, and researchers who give the individual stories a national perspective and context.

Our conversations led us to make a documentary—Set for Life—that follows three of the unemployed workers over a period of two years. We hope it will gain a wide audience, because our mission— with the website as well as the documentary—is to help unemployed older workers get back into the labor force, by improving the cultural perception of older workers and by influencing public policy.

Joe Price, a third-generation steelworker from Weirton, West Virginia, has been laid off seven times over the course of his 25-year career in the mill, but his most recent two-year layoff, which began in 2009, appears to be permanent. Joe’s plight raises many issues: the decline in U.S. manufacturing that was accelerated by the Great Recession, the role of unions in a highly competitive global economy, as well as the relationship between educational attainment and employment.

Deborah Salim, of Conway, South Carolina, worked for 15 years in the records department at a local community college until she lost her job in 2008 due to government budget cutbacks. Deborah’s saga illustrates that the recent recession affected not only private-sector employment but also employment in the public sector. It also reveals how the downturn squeezed out many low- or mid-level white-collar workers whose tasks were distributed to other employees or whose jobs were eliminated by technology, resulting in a “hollowing out” of the workforce with fewer opportunities for that stratum of workers.

George Ross, a Vietnam veteran and an information technology project manager in Livermore, California, lost his job in 2008. He searched for work until he was notified that his son, Jason, a Marine, had stepped on a buried mine in Afghanistan while on patrol. George’s story portrays the timeless burden that families bear when their sons and daughters go to war and return home injured, but George’s joblessness adds immeasurably to the problems he and his family are facing during Jason’s rehabilitation.

While the three main characters in Set for Life search for work in today’s daunting job market for older workers, they suffer financial woes, self-doubt, and health concerns. Thrust by the recession into a quest they never expected to face late in life, they ponder deeper questions that are relevant to everyone: What defines my self-worth? What is my definition of happiness? Can I reinvent myself? Can I prepare for and accept change?

As the U.S. economy continues to falter, the themes and issues explored in Set for Life remain timely and topical not only for boomers, but for all Americans.


Susan M. Sipprelle is a writer, journalist, and founder of Tree of Life Productions. She adapted this post from a column published in September by StayThirsty Media. “Set for Life” is an official selection of this year’s Massachusetts Independent Film Festival and Louisville’s International Festival of Film.

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