Culture

Diversity isn’t just about race and gender. It’s also about age.

Linda Lewi, a 69-year-old marketing strategist in Boston, has no plans to retire. She’s been at it full time since her junior year of high school and, in the past year and a half, has been consulting with local startups to develop their marketing plans. “I’ve been resilient and flexible, and I’m good at what I do,” she says.

Like Lewi, a small but growing percentage of older workers are staying on the job longer. According to ADP Research Institute, which has been tracking retirement trends since 1996, workers aged 55 and older experienced nearly 5 percent job growth during the first half of 2017 — more than any other age group. In a separate survey, conducted by The Employee Benefit Research Institute, 26 percent of workers say they plan to stay in the job force until age 70, and another 6 percent say they don’t ever plan to retire.

For older adults who want to work, staying productive and continuing to earn into their golden years has personal and fiscal advantages. But their prolonged presence in the job market also could be a boon for employers looking for reliable, knowledgeable, and skilled workers.

“There’s a lot of data showing older workers do have more experience, a little more emotional resilience, are more engaged in the jobs, and are willing to stay longer than younger workers are,” says Jacquelyn James, codirector of Boston College’s Center on Aging & Work.

The real value to employers is an effective and diverse workforce, says James. “We try to focus on the value of a multigenerational workforce, where there are people of all different ages and with all different kinds of experiences and backgrounds that come together in a way that makes a workforce more successful, innovative, and productive.”

What it takes to keep older workers

But keeping older workers — or recruiting them — can take creativity on the part of employers. Analysis published by the RAND Corporation in August revealed that older workers would return to work if the conditions were right. Findings from the Working Conditions in the United States study came from data gathered from a survey conducted by RAND in 2015 on nearly 3,100 men and women of different races between ages 25 and 71.

Among other discoveries, the researchers found that about 80 percent of those ages 50 to 59 said they would be able to do the job they had today in 10 years. More than one-third of employees ages 65 and older said that they had retired previously, but then returned to work. About half of workers over age 50 who were not in the labor force said they would return to work if the conditions were right.

“It does seem to indicate to us, at least, that there is a lot of untapped work potential,” says Kathleen Mullen, a senior economist at RAND Corporation and co-author on the study. “If there are people who could work, say they could work, and might want to work, maybe the right types of job perks aren’t out there.” According to the analysis, the right job might be one that has schedule flexibility, offers more meaningful work, and gives workers the ability to set their own pace, says Mullen.

Some large companies have already made strides in that direction, according to a 2012 case study from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work. For instance, CVS Caremark has a Snowbird Program that lets older workers in the Northeast work at stores in the South during the winter. Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., has a suite of Encore Cornell programs that, among other things, links retirees to temporary employment opportunities at the college. MITRE, based in Bedford, Mass., gives mature employees the chance to slowly phase into retirement or be available for “part-time on-call” work.

Marriott International has several strategies at its hotels to directly assist older workers, including the chance to cross-train and learn a new job that may not involve as much heavy lifting. Team working initiatives pair older workers with younger workers to split tasks, giving younger workers the more strenuous jobs. They also offer workers over 50 a chance to take on sales and customer service jobs that can be done by phone from home.

The value of a perk

But even though these sorts of attributes might come with lower salaries, without them many older workers are more likely leave the workforce. In a separate study, Mullen and her colleagues estimated the value of 10 different job attributes — from schedule flexibility to physical demands — and used the number to calculate how the lack of certain amenities was like getting a pay cut.

For instance, workers ages 62 and older said that having a job that required heavy physical labor compared to a job that involved mostly sitting was like getting a 24 percent wage decrease, or going from a salary of $100,000 to $76,000. “If you’re older and you’re on the margin of continuing to work or not, and you have a less-comfortable job, you might be more likely to leave entirely,” says Mullen.

She says companies should consider new workplace policies that encourage employers to improve their perks. She points to the Fair Workweek initiative that passed this summer in Oregon, the first statewide law that does away with on-call scheduling and eliminates “clopening” — requiring that workers stay until nighttime closing and return early the next morning to open a store or restaurant. Starting in 2018, employers with more than 500 workers will have to give employees at least a seven-day notice before changing a schedule. In 2020, that notice will go up to two weeks. Although it wasn’t designed to address older workers specifically, says Mullen, it’s the kind of law than can help them maintain a flexible schedule. Similar ordinances have been passed in cities, including Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and New York.

The reliability factor

Although laws help, employers need to see the value that older workers bring to the business, says Matthew Rutledge, a research economist at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. They’re reliable, have years of experience, and potentially a deep network of contacts, he says. It’s something employers can overlook, but he says, “It doesn’t take much of a change to their philosophy to find ways in which older people can really benefit that company.”

It’s not just the employer who benefits, however. Staying in the job market longer could add hundreds of dollars per month to a person’s monthly Social Security check when they do decide to retire. “It doesn’t take much of an extension of your career to really have a much more secure retirement,” says Rutledge.

He explained that if a person born after 1960 leaves the job force at her full retirement age of 67, she will receive $1,565 a month in Social Security benefits. If she retires early, at age 62, she will face a 30 percent reduction and get only $1,096 per month. If she waits until age 70, she will get a 24 percent boost and receive $1,941 per month.

Remaining in the workforce has advantages that extend beyond a salary, he says. Employment helps people maintain important social connections, gives them a chance to mentor protégés, and allows them to keep their company’s health insurance; medical insurance can be particularly expensive for 62-year-old retirees, who must wait until age 65 before they qualify for Medicare.

Adjusting perspectives

Older workers may have to adjust their expectations, as well. That’s what Lewi, the Boston marketing strategist, did when she was 67. She had just been laid off as a senior vice president of advertising, and staying in the job market required some soul-searching. She worked in a field that revered youth, and many of her colleagues had already retired. She met with plenty of marketing and advertising executives who would seem impressed with her experience and then introduce her to executives at other firms. It went on like that for a few weeks until it dawned on her: Nobody was going to hire a 67-year-old woman to become their vice president of marketing. “Lightning could strike, but it seemed unlikely,” she says.

Lewi decided to adapt. Because she no longer has a mortgage and receives health insurance through Medicare, she could simplify her expense structure and accept “startup wages,” if it meant she had schedule flexibility and could do the work she loved. Today, she spends a few hours per week volunteering to mentor new companies and earns income through her consulting agency, Double L Strategy. So, when does Lewi plan to stop working? That’s not even something she’s pondering lately. “How do you not work, has been more the question,” she says.