Op-Ed: Why your grandmother is still employed
People don’t have a use-by date — 65 isn’t a magic age after which workers merely plod along, doing routine work, bereft of creativity and new ideas.
In 2014, Los Angeles’ own Frank Gehry, now 87, opened two museums, one in Panama City and one in Paris. In 2015, a Gehry building opened in Sydney, Australia. Among other projects, he’s now embarked on an ambitious plan related to redeveloping the L.A. River.
At the same age, evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has launched a new project: preserving biodiversity by permanently protecting about half the planet, reserving it for the 10 million species other than Homo sapiens. He calls the project “Half Earth,” as in “half for us, half for them.”
These men and women are high achievers but they exemplify a much wider trend: More and more people are staying in the workforce well beyond the traditional retirement age, and excelling at challenging jobs.
From 2000 to 2015, there has been a dramatic uptick in the ranks of retirement-age workers. The percent of workers 65 and over, although small, has grown 300% (from 2% to 6%), according to the ADP National Employment Report.
It used to be that if you were over 65 and working, you probably worked part time, but around 2001, the wind shifted, and full-time employment started climbing. By 2007, 55% of workers 65 and older were employed full time; by 2014, 60% of workers age 65 and older had full-time jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The startling fact is that the only age group in which labor force participation is growing is workers over 55 — in contrast to the steady decline among younger workers. And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people aged 45 to 54 and 55 to 64, working full-time, had the highest median weekly earnings of any age segment: $930 and $903, respectively. Meanwhile, those 20 to 24 had weekly earnings of only $493. Those who are 25 to 34 earned $736.
There are many reasons older people are staying in the workforce. Mandatory retirement ages have been abolished for most jobs. Thanks to medical advances, and better personal habits, people in their 70s may be healthier than their parents and grandparents were in their 50s.
Surveys show that 70% of “retirees” who go back to work say they do it to stay “mentally active,” but the expectation of living longer also keeps many older people at work — they want to make sure they will not outlive their savings. Adults today fear running out of money more than they fear death itself (80% compared with 20%, according to one survey).
Older people are more focused, less distracted, and more able to zero in on the job at hand than younger workers.
And yet these older workers aren’t being hired or kept on the job for charity’s sake. A major international study, done by the Max Planck Institute in Germany in 2010, punched a sizable hole in the commonly held notion that veteran employees are dim, slow and less productive.
In fact, the study found that older workers’ productivity was more consistent than younger workers’. The researchers compared 101 young adults (20-31) and 103 older adults (65-80) on 12 different tasks over 100 days. These included tests of cognitive abilities, perceptual speed, episodic memory and working memory. Researchers expected that the younger workers would perform more consistently over time, while the older workers would be more variable.
But the data showed the 65-to-80-year-old workers’ performance was actually more stable, less variable day-to-day, than the younger group. Older workers’ cognitive performance was also more consistent — they didn’t learn less, remember less or take longer to learn than younger workers.
The researchers suggested that older workers’ wealth of experience enabled them to design strategies to solve problems. In addition, their motivation was higher than the younger workers’. “On balance, older employees’ productivity and reliability is higher than that of their younger colleagues,” says Axel Börsch-Supan of the Max Planck Institute. Other studies back up the Planck research: Older people are more focused, less distracted, and more able to zero in on the job at hand than younger workers.
Part of the reason is that they’ve seen a lot and they don’t panic. As one over-65 manager told the AARP, “The patience you develop as you get older helps you deal with stressful situations. A crisis comes up and rather than getting emotional, you’re more likely to think, ‘This too shall pass.’ When you can be dispassionate about a problem, it’s easier to see what’s urgent and where to put your resources.”
The best evidence indicates that the significant cognitive and physical declines that may come with aging set in much later than 65, and they are variable, not absolute.
“There is no evidence of a substantive decline in ability in most people until well past the end of a typical working life. Aging affects everyone differently, and it is not possible to make predictions about any one individual’s capability,” says a 2014 U.K. report, Productivity and Age.
It’s critical today to break free of outdated thinking about when people should stop working. Age alone tells us almost nothing. As California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 81, reminds us, “Age is very much individual.… You can see that everywhere. Some people lose brain cells faster than others. Some people lose body functions faster than others. So if you keep all those things, there is no reason age is any deterrent.”
Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers are the co-authors of “The Age of Longevity: Reimagining Tomorrow for Our New Long Lives,” due to be published next month.
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