Senate Hearing: Mapping a “New Workscape” for Older Workers

When the U.S. Senate wanted to know more about the role of work in the lives of older Americans, they tapped author and careers expert Kerry Hannon, among others, to testify in a hearing on June 24, 2015.

Hannon described the contours of a changing landscape, given current demographic and workplace trends, and highlighted policy and practice shortfalls that can make finding work at 50+ challenging. She also described a looming drop in the American workforce as millions approach retirement – and the plain reluctance of American employers to acknowledge or plan for the deficit.

The basics: Employees over 65 outnumber teens in the workforce, for the first time since the Eisenhower era. By 2022, one in three workers will be 50+ — and today, two-thirds of workers say they plan to work for pay in retirement. A 60-year-old in 2015 might reasonably plan to work at least part-time for another 15 years, Hannon said. Quoting Encore.org CEO and founder Marc Freedman, she testified, “That changes the entire equation about what you want to do and what’s possible.”

“Work is a pillar of retirement planning, not an afterthought” said Hannon, adding that studies have shown that older workers are more loyal, more skilled and have a stronger work ethic than their younger peers.

But obstacles persist: Ageism looms large, as does inflexibility in the workplace. And when older workers do find jobs, they often earn less than they did in their primary career.

Hannon highlighted solutions as well, focusing on programs that support workers as they transition into retirement, via the Encore Fellowships Network and Encore.org network member Encore Hartford at the University of Connecticut. She also spotlit EncoreU’s work in opening higher-ed opportunities for all students, building on successes achieved in the nation’s community colleges, and stressed the urgent need for skills and training that match actual jobs – and support the desire to work.

Many people need to work in retirement, Hannon said. Over and above the economic imperative, though, “Work gives us a sense of purpose, and a sense of feeling connected and needed. It keeps our minds sharper.” Citing researchers at MIT, Hannon points to a persistent tension: People over 60 may be reaching the age of retirement, but many are at the top of their games, and want to make a contribution.

Echoing what we learned in our recent collaboration with The Conference Board, Hannon emphasized the need for “more corporate programs to help employees shift to second careers,” in the public and private sector,” citing Encore Fellowship programs at Intel and HP and IBM’s Transition to Teaching program. Greater support should be provided for intergenerational entrepreneurship, even as the market for “gray” jobs – senior fitness trainer, health-care navigator, housing advocate – expands.

“As tens of millions of people live into their 80s and 90s, we’ll need millions of others in their 50s and 60s and 70s to help care for them — not just within families, but through second careers,” Hannon said, again quoting Marc Freedman. “They’ll be able to fill millions of positions we will need to fill — as nurses, home health aides, health navigators and roles we’ve yet to even define.”

Senator Susan Collins, who chaired the hearing, concluded, “We are facing a tsunami of retirees who will outlive their savings, who are not prepared for retirement. Work will be a very important part of financial security for older Americans.”

Work with purpose and for social impact is at the heart of the encore movement. So we welcome the attention of the Senate and we applaud Hannon for her articulate representation of both the challenges and some potential solutions. Take the time to read her testimony and watch the hearing here.