Vicki Soll admits the question terrifies her as she approaches “traditional” retirement age.
What would you do without work?
“Like many others, I’ve always defined who I am by my work,” said Soll, a 63-year-old San Jose resident who worked in high tech for 30 years. Soll now works as a tech trainer for GetSetUp, a company dedicated to upskilling and reskilling older workers.
Soll is one of millions of Americas approaching what has always been considered “retirement age.” But merging factors are rapidly changing what we think about the abilities of people in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even beyond.
New medical advances are stretching lifespans, as plenty of research shows people leading active lives lead longer lives — including those putting off retirement to keep working. But the biggest factor is the coming decades will see a significant shift in the percentage of older people in society. And that will be reflected in its workforce.
“I enjoy doing volunteer work, I exercise outside every day and have just gotten into vegetable gardening, but I don’t think I would be happy just doing those things at this point in my life,” Soll said. “I still feel I have so much to offer when it comes to helping older adults understand technology.
“Honestly, I have no stop date in mind. I would love to be able to keep teaching as long as I’m enjoying the work and feeling that I’m adding value and helping people,” she said. “It keeps my mind sharp and gives me a sense of purpose, which is vital as we age.”
Baby boomers and Generation X’s impact on the new elder culture
If for no other reason, it’s just math.
In 2019, about one in every 11 people on Earth was 65 or older. By 2050, that number will nearly double, rising to one in six, according to the United Nations. The World Health Organization says the number of people 60 or older will more than double from 2015 to 2050, from 900 million to 2 billion.
U.S. Census Bureau projections say roughly the same thing: In 2016, there were 49.2 million people in the U.S. 65 and older. By 2060, that number will increase to about 94.7 million.
Human population numbers have always grown. But what’s coming, thanks to 20th-century booming birthrates, is an explosion of the number of people we call Baby Boomers (born post-World War II until the mid 1960s) and Generation X (born mid-1960s to early-1980s)
Now, in the not-to-distant future, we’ll call them “elderly.”
Proceeding hand in hand with medical advancements, that exploding demographic will live longer and wants to keep working past whatever “retirement age” label other people still hang on them.
“I believe that we are going to see that term retire over the next decade,” said Janine Vanderburg, director of Changing the Narrative, a global campaign meant to eliminate ageism. “We’re starting to see more and more people talk about un-retirement, non-retirement, etc.”
“The most important thing to remember is that as we age, we get more different from each other, a result of a lifetime of accumulated experiences,” Vanderburg said. “The notion that there should be one retirement age is really outdated.”
It’s a conversation we’ll be hearing more. The 65 and over population will grow faster, by percentage of overall population, than any other U.S. demographic between 2016 and 2060.
The under-18 crowd will grow by 2.2 percent, the 18-to-44 group will grow at virtually the same pace as before, and the 45-to-64 demographic will actually decrease by 2.1 percent, according to Census projections.
Meanwhile, the Baby Boomers have aged into the 65-and-over demographic, which in the U.S. will grow by 8.5 percent, going from about 14.9 percent to 23.4 percent of the total population — nearly four times faster than any group.
“I think attitudes about older workers are starting to change,” Vanderburg said. “We saw some of that before the pandemic, and again it was very much influenced in sectors that were experiencing talent shortages. Around the world, we’ve seen that in countries that experienced aging demographics before the United States, attitudes have started to shift.”
The growing necessity of older workers
As the older generation evolves, so will how we value older people in the workforce. Growing automation may be a hindrance to some workers. While making some jobs physically easier, it makes others ideal for adding an experienced, human touch.
“When it comes to experience and understanding complex human problems, they may be at an advantage,” said Andrew Scharlach, a Kleiner Professor of Aging, Emeritus, at University of California at Berkeley and the founding director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services.
“I have a friend who is a tech company consultant,” Scharlach said. “He’s 75 and I don’t think he can write a line of code. And yet, he’s been an asset for understanding the industry.”
“We can look at all these folks who are getting paid big money to write code, but machines are gaining on them,” Scharlach said. “They’re getting better at writing code. We have to be thoughtful about the future of jobs. We have knowledge of human interaction.”
“It may be, in just a few years, you go to Home Depot and the whole place will be run by machines. But I’m going to bet there will have to be a greeter there, to humanize the experience. To present the facade of humanity.”
Scharlach says the biggest question is what the nature of work will look like, with more people once considered “elderly” working longer.
“Will jobs be automated?” he asked. “Just over the last 20 years, the kinds of jobs people do have changed. Then factor in the pandemic. Many of the more hands-on jobs are going to be disappearing. Is this good news for older adults? As more and more jobs can be done at a computer, physical ability becomes less important.”
“The basic question is what do older adults have to offer?”
Dustin Whitney of Boston-based Whitney Group is a small business developer who specializes in demographics and the future of work. He said, “there are enormous unmet needs for employers right now.”
“On top of everything going on, major demographic shifts are beginning to be felt,” Whitney said. “The overall availability of working age population to support our labor needs is declining. There’s no hiding from the numbers. Baby boomers are aging, and the younger workers are fewer,” Whitey said. “Economic function depends on workers. Those on the older side of life will need to work longer.”
“With the exception of strenuous physical work that can only be performed by younger people, there are many open positions for older workers. Previous concerns associated with hiring older workers are no longer relevant, due to such scarcity,” he said.
Will more people want to work longer?
Scharlach said many people still look forward to retiring.
“It depends on one’s health and physical state and their financial state,” he said. “The people who tend not to retire are the ones who can’t retire. The benefits of continuing to work, as important as they are, people don’t tend to think of it that way.”
“The people you know working now have flexible control of their jobs that aren’t physically demanding, or the ones who have to work.”
The state of Social Security will also likely be a factor, with so many people drawing benefits.
“Social Security used to be the third rail of politics,” Scharlach said. “Not anymore.”
“We’re one of the few countries that doesn’t have a mandatory retirement age,” he said. “Unless you’re a pilot or a firefighter, you can keep working as long as you want. There’s a pretty good argument for not giving everyone over 65 Social Security. Maybe we’ll get to a point where it’s based on ability, not chronology.
“If you ask my parents’ generation about Social Security, they saw it as their money. Which wasn’t true. But that’s how they saw it. You put the money into some black hole, and maybe it’ll be there when you need it. The question is whether we can, or should, afford it.”
Scharlach said he thinks eventually something will change about how Social Security is distributed, which also could affect how long people have to work.
“I think there’s an argument for Social Security being need-based. The risk is, when you take away entitlements, you see something not helping the poor and unfed. And that develops its own political way of thinking. But I think we’ll eventually see some sort of change,” he said.
“We and every other country in the world are aging, from a demographic perspective,” Scharlach said. “Are we preparing ourselves for that reality? If we see untapped potential in society in older adults, what do we do to tap that potential?”
The shift is already happening
Liz Miller is the communication manager for GetSetUp, the company dedicated to upskilling and reskilling older workers. The company partners with government and aging advocacy groups, started in the Bay Area but grew to serve 4.6 million older learners in 160 countries as demand grew.
“Our goal is to make work accessible,” Miller said. “A lot of people who are looking for jobs really needed connection. All our classes are live and interactive.
“Our biggest cohort is 55 to 75 (years old). Our oldest learner is 93 right now; She’s taking social media and tech classes. Tech classes are our biggest draw, because there’s so much change out there with technology,” she said.
“The biggest shift I’m seeing is that the workforce is going to be interactive. They point out things engineers don’t think of.
“As people get older, they’ll be looking for work that has meaning for them, where they can give back,” Miller said. “They like flexibility — work is going to have to become more flexible. With so many people working from home, (companies) are hiring people they can trust. It’s no longer going to be 9 to 5.”
Miller said older adults want to work, but they also want to travel and take care of grandchildren. Many of the people GetSetUp trains end up working for the company.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Miller said. “People feel good about what we’re doing. (Older workers) want that sense of purpose, that they’re helping people and giving back.
Miller said the company’s growth is also about people having to work longer, especially since the pandemic.
“The problem we’re about to have is that we’re about to have a lot of people who have to work; they can’t retire, or they’ll be homeless,” said Miller.
The pandemic also made working from home much more acceptable, which is beneficial to older workers.
“Since I am able to work from home, it does make it easier to continue working,” said Donna Yedziniak, a 62-year-old job trainer for GetSetUp. “If I had a physical job, it would be harder to continue working at a certain point. I have more control on when I retire.”
“Most of my peers who are still working in the corporate world are not happy because they are the oldest person in the office and at times feel isolated from younger co-workers,” Yedziniak said. “So, it is very difficult for the older worker. I am fortunate in my situation.”
Miller said ageism is still a barrier to many older adults who want to stay in the workforce.
“It’s incumbent on us to continue working on that by educating employers about the business case for older workers and intergenerational teams and dispelling stereotypes,” she said. “Advocating not only for stronger workforce age discrimination laws, but also that workforce development dollars should be dedicated in part to reskilling and upscaling older adults who want and/or need to remain in the workforce.”
Aging as a growth industry
Jennifer Fitzpatrick, a gerontology instructor at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring For Your Loved Ones,” said older Americans can work as long as they like in nearly every industry.
“The only exceptions are those industries where mandatory retirement is still legal,” Fitzpatrick said. “Some jobs with compulsory retirement rules include FBI agents and commercial airline pilots.”
Fitzpatrick said the pandemic sped up already-changing attitudes toward older workers.
“Attitudes about older workers have changed dramatically because of the workforce shortage that resulted because of the pandemic and COVID-19 policies,” Fitzpatrick said. “Most employers are focused on finding qualified, motivated workers of all ages. There really is no ‘official’ retirement age in most industries.”
Fitzpatrick said, with such a higher percentage of the population growing older, aging itself will be a growth industry.
“I am constantly mentoring older students who are starting consulting businesses focused in the aging field,” she said.
“Senior living and health care are hot industries that are always hiring — not just for nurses and medical professionals,” Fitzpatrick said. “These workplaces need to fill administrative, human resources, fundraising, sales, and marketing positions too. A big plus is you are highly unlikely to encounter ageism in these industries.”
“Otherwise, it really depends on the older adult’s goals,” Fitzpatrick said. “Often the older years are a great time for older persons to transition into a passion job. An example is a former schoolteacher who now works at a gym because she loves yoga and fitness and can get a free membership as a perk.”
Whatever the reason, the surge of older workers is starting to arrive. People who used to have their value in society questioned are becoming as vital as ever.
“Getting up each morning knowing that I have classes to teach or create gives my day structure and knowing that I’ve been able to make a difference in someone’s day by showing them how to use technology nourishes my soul,” Soll said. “I’m just so grateful I have the ability to continue to work and learn when tech companies won’t even consider hiring people my age.”
This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and the RRF Foundation for Aging.