Almost everybody needs or wants to work in their 50s and most need to work into their 60s. But the pandemic hasn’t been kind to older workers.
The “Great Resignation” — a term that describes those who have been emboldened to seek raises or discover better things to do than work — mostly applies to young and mobile workers. Only employees ages 16 to 24 have seen big wage gains, while older workers’ wages have been stagnant. In addition, a sizable chunk of older workers, about 15%, lost their jobs in 2020 compared to 14% of prime-age workers. That’s counter to the trend of older worker job loss usually being lower compared to other age groups during a recession.
A greater-than-expected share of older workers in their mid-60s and over (presumably with padded retirement accounts and COVID-19 fears) did choose to retire. But younger older workers, or those ages 55 to 64, seem to have been forced out of work — often without substantial retirement assets.
The median retirement account balance for older workers is $15,000, which means it’s likely many of those workers are looking to jump right back into the labor pool. During a bipartisan congressional economic hearing recently, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked what everyone is thinking, the gist of which is: If employers need workers and there are millions of older workers who were forced out of work, how can older workers secure those open jobs?
While it sounds pretty straightforward, factors such as employer bias and mismatched skills are difficult hurdles to overcome. But there are a few things that older workers, employers and even Oprah can do to improve their prospects.
First, older workers on the job hunt should take advantage of available services geared to them specifically. AARP sponsors online and in-person workshops for job seekers 50 and over. Another resource is Encore Network, which connects professional workers in that demographic. It may be helpful to seek out employers who signal on their websites that they have less age bias than most. Look on Retirementjobs.com or with the Certified Age Friendly Employer Program, which identifies companies that say they’re committed to supporting workers 50 and up, such as AT&T and CVS Health.
It’s also important for older workers to not let unpaid work impede their job search, if at all possible. Many workers who left the labor market during the pandemic did so to provide unpaid care. Mothers of school-age children dominated the headlines, but older men and women do considerable nonpaid caregiving as well. With health care employment down by more than 370,000 jobs (including more than 200,000 in nursing homes), it’s not surprising older workers feel pressure to take on some care, such as for a spouse or for grandchildren. But the wage losses for being a family caregiver are considerable.
Going back to school probably isn’t the answer. Getting a second master’s degree is a cost that may never be recouped. Instead, try courses through MOOC or Coursera to “badge” your way into a new job. Some of the classes offered are tied to jobs, such as programming or data science, while others provide formal, in-person certifications like the Lean/Six Sigma belt system for business operations.
Many people start these classes but don’t finish since it’s hard to maintain energy and dedication for two to three hours of studying for seven weeks. Doing it with others can be fun and make people accountable.
For their part, employers should do as much as they can to replace their conscious or unconscious bias against older workers. Shed terms like “energetic” and “digital native,” and instead specify “mature,” “experienced” and “reliable” in job postings to let the market (and lawyers) know you welcome older applicants.
Let IBM be a cautionary tale. The company is facing an age discrimination lawsuit, and internal emails recently released as part of the proceedings show executives described older workers as “dinobabies” who should become extinct.
Everyone’s retirement age is different, and you don’t have total control over when that is. But if the market is pushing you to an earlier retirement age than you’re ready for, remember there are ways to fight back.
Teresa Ghilarducci is the Schwartz Professor of Economics at the New School for Social Research. She’s the co-author of “Rescuing Retirement” and a member of the board of directors of the Economic Policy Institute.