USA Today: Not Your Grandpa’s Retirement

(My column on seniors working longer ran in USA Today yesterday; text is below. There were split opinions in the comments section. Some subscribed to the lump sum of labor theory, believing that old folks need to be bribed out of the workforce to make way for the new — not a position I hold or that I think makes much economic sense. Others think it’s only because of need that seniors work, and therefore it’s sad. But a reasonable number of comments were from retired people who said not working made them happy… for about a month. And then they realized that there is an upside to employment).

by Laura Vanderkam

Judith Van Ginkel is 71 years old and works 50-60 hours a week. And yet, “I’m the luckiest person I know,” she says.

Here’s why: Well beyond what many people consider retirement age, Van Ginkel (whose career has mostly been in medical administration) runs Every Child Succeeds, a home visitation program overseen by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Over the past decade, the dozens of social workers on her team have checked in on 17,000 at-risk pregnant women and their children, ensuring that these growing families get proper medical care and support. As a result, the infant mortality rate among participant families is well below the national average, despite their poverty rates — an outcome that Van Ginkel finds more exciting than playing golf. And so, “I’m going to continue doing this as long as I can do it well,” she tells me.

A growing number of older Americans are having similar thoughts. After decades of decline, the labor force participation rate among people older than 65 rose from a low of 10.7% in 1987 to more than 17% now. Nearly a third of those ages 65-69 are working or looking for work, up from less than 20% in the 1980s, and surveys of Baby Boomers find that many don’t intend to retire immediately either.

Certainly, not all older workers feel as lucky as Van Ginkel about their situations (nor do some younger workers eyeing these jobs). But while the economic crisis has trapped some people in the workforce, the trend began during good times and in general is a positive development — a recognition that people both need and want to be part of the workforce longer in an era of longer lives, and that seniors with incomes feel more secure and spend more in a way that generally boosts the economy. Though some older workers encounter barriers in the labor market, there is plenty that we, as a society, can do to encourage our most expert workers to continue sharing their gifts with the world in a way that is rewarding for them.

‘A desire to stay engaged’

The notion of a decades-long retirement is relatively recent. When President Franklin Roosevelt introduced Social Security in the 1930s, life expectancy (at birth) was 58 for men and 62 for women. These low numbers, though, reflected widespread infant mortality that, in an era without adequate antibiotics or vaccines, even a group such as Every Child Succeeds couldn’t have done much about. But still, people who made it to adulthood tended to die earlier, too.

These days, more of us make it to 65, and people who turn 65 can quite reasonably expect to live to age 85 or more. One factor contributing to the rise of senior labor force participation is that even with Social Security and significant personal savings, 20 years to 30 years is a long time to go with no new income. And most people don’t have significant personal savings (or don’t now, given recent stock market losses).

But that’s not all that’s going on. The notion that work is something you want to stop doing is getting a makeover as well. Baby boomers in particular have “a desire to stay engaged and active in the workforce, and in many cases to try their hands at second careers and new work adventures,” reports Mark Miller, who runs the website Retirement Revised. Some do this through volunteering, but there are plenty of enjoyable jobs in for-profit enterprises, too.

Of course, just because people need or want to work (or both) doesn’t mean that staying in the labor force is easy. Surveys of job-seeking seniors have found rampant age discrimination among hiring managers.

But there are ways to help. Andrew Biggs, a former principal deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration, has floated an intriguing idea of reducing the Social Security tax rate on workers older than 62. “Under current law, older workers receive very little additional benefit if they decide to remain in the workforce and pay additional taxes to Social Security,” says Biggs, who’s now at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Reducing the tax rate would make the system more fair to them. A lower Social Security tax rate would give older workers a little more money in their pockets and would make older workers cheaper to employers. That could counter the age discrimination such workers are facing.

‘Encore careers’

More broadly, though, in an era of longer lives, we all need to spend more time pondering what we’d like to do with our years. For her work, Van Ginkel recently won a $100,000 Purpose Prize from Civic Ventures, an organization that encourages older Americans to pursue “encore careers” — work that is meaningful, flexible, serves the greater good and, in many cases, their finances as well.Veteran business people can advise new entrepreneurs. Former health care administrators can help people with chronic illnesses choose the best care, and former educators can design curricula and coach rookie teachers. The true sweet spot is when we ask, “What do I love to do so much I’d do it for free?”, and then figure out a way to get paid for it.

That’s what Van Ginkel has done. “I never get up and feel, oh, I have to go to work today,” she says. “I get up wanting to do this.”

Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.


7 thoughts on “USA Today: Not Your Grandpa’s Retirement

  1. Interesting. My mom runs a museum program at nursing homes and assisted living facilities for seniors and she gets paid something for it but she just really likes doing it, probably more than her job she had when she HAD TO WORK. It her own program and she just created it herself. This is particularly interesting for women who feel a need to cut back or step back while raising young children but who hopefully live long and healthy lives until like 75. The tax on working from SS is crazy so great that you put that out there. Why wouldn’t we let those folks keep paying into SS and take out as much as they need?

    We talk about not taxing and motivating work but we don’t really do it. I pay enough in taxes as a small business owner to hire at least one full time person and I really wish the gov would give me two or three years to try to use that person to owe them more down the line.. but that probably will not happen.

    1. @Cara- I think what your mom has discovered is that the right job is one that has autonomy, purpose, etc. — as you said, she ‘created it herself.’ Unfortunately, many people don’t start out with such jobs because we have other notions of what is the right career. As I say in the op-ed, the best plan is to find something you love so much you’d do it for free, and then figure out how to get paid decently for it.

    2. My dream jobs prargom would be somethingthat incentivized employers to hire both a veryyoung worker and an older worker to share onejob. Both would learn from each other and theexperience would advance the benefits of a trulyinter-generational workplace?something thatdoes not exist in America in any form. I believethe unemployment rate for older workers is now thehighest it?s been since the post WWII years whenmature employees were replaced (along with most women) by the returning G.I.?s. Arthur Miller?s Death of ASalesmen was written about the pain and trauma of this experience. Sadly, in 2011, we are living in Willy Loman?s America. I joined Reserve for both political and personalreasons. They are cutting-edge and unique in thatthey are the only organization that recognizes the valueof our career experience and accomplishments and understands that not all of us wish to be Wal-Mart Greeters.Elaine KremnitzReservist

  2. I am trying to get through that book Drive, which talks a lot about Autonomy in work and how that is so important to overall satisfaction, more important than money, but we often don’t really get what that means — and it brings up an interesting issue of how to foster that in an employee say who has set tasks….

    Also it does get back to money — b/c if you feel or your reality is that you need a certain amount of money to do your life or your work it is harder for the average person to take risks… so I am trying to work on my own ideas of money to put them more in line with what actually makes me happy — like reading a book (I have young kids it is a big deal to get through a book) might make me as Happy as making more money this month… so if I don’t need to make more money even though that is part of how I track my success… maybe I would feel more autonomy to be able to read that book – well right now I have like three or four books I really feel an urgency to finish .. so money is part of it, so I’d love to see your take on that and like the idea of SS as something say that earns older folks the right to work more autonomously and thus actually build wealth..
    in terms of goal setting one of my goals is to be thinner much thinner by the end of 2011.. mea and everyone else right… also I want to be thin but many thin people actually don’t exercise that much b/c they limit calories but exercise makes me really happy… so it is a balancing act… how can I be thin and exercise a lot? !!

  3. I saw the title of this and I thought it was written in the 1990’s. Are you kidding? I am 49 and retired….and not by choice. I send out hundreds of resumes for jobs that I am qualified for but get not one response. I know it is because I am not 20. I don’t get it. The ads list about 40 separate qualifications all of which I have. I can understand if I wasn;t getting the job because I am a bad interview. However, I don;t get interviews and I know I don’t come off as a negative creep in my letters. So what else is it then? Even when I list my first job as 2006 I get zero response.

    1. I’m sorry to hear about your situation. Having seen a few hiring situations, I’d say that more often than not, they’re not actually hiring from the piles of resumes sent in. They’re hiring someone that is familiar to the organization — that comes recommended by another person the hiring manager trusts.

  4. And I got news for all you employers. Nobody “likes” you or your companies. It’s just that some people are better sociopathical liars. Get over it. I will find time to research your stupid company the minute you find time to actually look at my resume. THE ONLY THING ANYONE IS INTERESTED IN IS A PAYCHECK. So lets just cut the bullcrap OK?

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