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Where is workforce really booming? Among the oldest workers.

Older workers are the fastest growing part of the U.S. labor force. The number of workers age 65 to 74 will be 55% higher in 2024 than in 2014, the Labor Department projects. And the projected increase for workers 75 and older is 86%.

For some senior workers, it’s about earning needed income. For others, it’s about improving one’s lifestyle by giving of one’s talents. Among employers, the hiring boom is partly cyclical. In a tight job market, McDonald’s for example announced it was teaming up with AARP to recruit seniors to fill 250,000 openings this summer. But companies also see it as a long-term shift in their employment base. For many, age diversity in the workforce helps them cater to older customers as well as young ones.

A bias against maturity persists, as some prominent age-discrimination lawsuits attest. Still, opportunities are growing for people like Darneese Carnes, who hit a mental low point after losing her job in her mid-50s. Now, after help from a nonprofit called Operation Able, she’s happy in a job for Boston’s iconic duck-boat tours. “I love driving!” she says. “I love people.”

Newton, Mass.

Darneese Carnes was in a bad mental place three years ago. In October, she was fired from her job at a group home in suburban Boston, especially tough for a woman in her mid-50s with few job prospects. The next month, her sister died. Her brother-in-law, a trucker, was so worried about her he took her along for two months while he made his runs.

Back home, she ran across a flyer from Operation Able, a Boston nonprofit aimed at getting people, especially older people, back into the workforce through training and job placement. She did so well there, the nonprofit itself hired her. “Operation Able really did save my life,” she says.

Since then, Ms. Carnes has moved to Boston Duck Tours, which offers land-water tours of the city, and drives its iconic duck boats. “I love driving!” she says. “I love people.”

A funny thing is happening on the way to America’s aging crisis, which is expected to strain government resources and could well drag down economic growth. Increasingly, senior employees are staying in the workforce, either holding onto their jobs long beyond traditional retirement or returning to work after retirement. And companies, which once tried to push seniors out the door, are waking up to the potential value that they offer.

“There seems to be more understanding about the characteristics, the value that older people bring to workplaces,” says Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging.

More than 800 employers have signed AARP’s pledge to promote equal opportunity for all workers, regardless of age. In 2018, the number of firms making the pledge grew 72%; this year, the Washington-based senior advocacy group expects another hefty increase.

“Age is now a new flavor of diversity,” says Tim Driver, CEO of Age Friendly Ventures, which operates RetirementJobs.com and other job websites for senior workers.

‘This is not temporary’

Companies are getting increasing recognition for their efforts to attract older workers. Last year, job website Glassdoor highlighted 12 employers hiring workers over 50, including KPMG, Bucknell University, and General Mills. Also in 2018, Columbia University’s aging center awarded 13 New York City area businesses for being “age smart,” including utility National Grid, high-end piano manufacturer Steinway, and the Bronx Zoo, whose 2,400-member workforce ranged in age from 16 to 91.   

Part of firms’ interest in older workers is cyclical. With the unemployment rate at a 50-year low, businesses are desperate for workers.

Just last month, McDonald’s announced it was teaming up with AARP to recruit seniors to fill 250,000 openings this summer.

But once the next downturn hits, the focus on older workers will continue, experts predict.

“I can assure you this is not temporary,” says Glassdoor’s chief economist, Andrew Chamberlain. “This is a long-term shift that has been going on for years.”

The reason is demographics. With longer and healthier life spans, seniors are staying in the workforce – sometimes because they’re worried about running out of money, sometimes because they’re worried about getting bored. Older workers are the fastest growing part of the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It projects that between 2014 and 2024 the number of workers age 65 to 74 will rise 55% and those 75 and older will increase 86%. By 2024, a quarter of all workers will be 55 or older.

The shift isn’t enough to fully counteract the economic challenges that many expect from an aging society, says Mr. Chamberlain. But having more workers working longer will help. And all those workers are also consumers.

Take CVS Health, the nation’s largest retail pharmacy chain. Under its Talent is Ageless program, it has tried to attract older workers by making the workplace more friendly: increased lighting, carpeted floors, color-coded signage, and increased font sizes on its shelves. It has also come up with creative schedules to accommodate seniors, such as telecommuting, flextime, job sharing, and compressed workweeks so that someone can work four 10-hour days rather than a five-day schedule. In the early 1990s, 7% of its employees were 50 and over; today, it’s 24%.

“We’ve been focused on recruiting and working with mature workers for more than 20 years because we recognize that hiring mature workers makes good business sense for our company,” says David Casey, the chain’s vice president of workforce strategies and chief diversity officer, in a statement to the Monitor. “As we see the Baby Boomer generation age, having staff in our store that can personally relate to these customers – our fastest growing customer base – is a differentiator for us.”

That same dynamic is present in caregiving jobs for the elderly. Hospitals and senior care homes are a popular landing spot for older workers.

“We talk about recruiting every day,” says Tim Reilly, vice president of associate experience at Benchmark Senior Living in Waltham, Massachusetts. The company, which has some 60 facilities spread across the Northeast, started working with Age Friendly Ventures last year so that it could recruit more senior workers.

“I have never felt as content in my life as I have working here,” says Esta Avasalu, a septuagenarian and program assistant at Evans Park, one of Benchmark’s assisted living facilities in suburban Boston. “I can empathize with what people are going through. It takes me a month to clean my place instead of two days” like it used to.

Plenty of hiccups

Ms. Avasalu works full time because she has to. Her co-worker, Jeannette Offutt, works because she wants to. She retired for six years after her accounting firm laid her off after 30 years. “But I got bored.” She initially tried to get back into accounting. Eventually, she called on her experience in the Army as a medic, got certified as a nurse assistant at the YMCA, and landed a job as a med tech at Evans Park. “I love it! … I learn a lot from [the patients], and I admire them.”

Senior workers’ technical skills can be out of date and even their jobs can become obsolete. One man who came to Operation Able a couple of years ago had spent his career making sets and props for stage plays. He was suddenly unemployed because the theater was winding down. “What do you do with that?” says Chad Cotter, director of talent acquisition at Boston Medical Center and a volunteer at Operation Able.

But when he dug into the man’s background he found that he had to buy all his own materials (strong accounting skills), meet deadlines, and deal with any curveballs thrown his way. Mr. Cotter’s company (he worked for a different hospital then) hired the man as a project coordinator. “That was the absolute right fit,” Mr. Cotter says. The man went on to be promoted twice.

There are also plenty of hiccups. While a corporation’s leadership may be moving to embrace mature workers, the situation on the ground may be quite different.

“It all depends on the management of each store & those above the manager,” one CVS employee groused, anonymously, on retirementjobs.com. Younger managers “do not know how to treat an older worker & sometimes will try things to get rid of them or not promote them.”

And despite the move by a rising number of companies to embrace older workers, the bias against maturity persists. A global Deloitte survey last year of more than 11,000 human-relations and business leaders found that just under half the employers had done nothing to help older workers find new careers and another 15% viewed older workers as an obstacle to younger, more talented workers. (Research suggests that’s not true, Mr. Chamberlain says.)

Last month, a federal judge allowed a class-action suit against PricewaterhouseCoopers, which alleges that thousands of qualified job applicants 40 and older were discriminated against because the firm recruited new college graduates. A ProPublica investigation found that 20,000 U.S.-based IBM employees 40 and over were laid off in favor of younger workers – a charge the company denies.

Changing mindsets about the value of these workers will take time – not only for employers but for the workers.

“Everything I do in my work is around improving the lives of older people, about changing the culture of aging,” says Mr. Irving, the aging expert at Milken. “And yet it’s the case when I look in the mirror that I know I have to get over my own biases about the implications of my own aging. … The first thing we have to change is ourselves.”

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