(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.
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.