Accessibility links

Older Americans Delaying Retirement in Face of US Worker Shortage - 2004-05-22

The U.S. workforce is aging fast, as one-third of Americans, the Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964, creep closer to retirement. At the same time, the U.S. birthrate has declined from almost four per couple in 1950 to just two today. This adds up to a looming job crisis. Where will corporate America find young, skilled workers to replace the brainpower and sheer numbers of older workers who leave? A new study published in the Harvard Business Review offers a stark solution, simply retire retirement.

The average American today lives to 75. Yet millions of healthy, smart, productive older workers are leaving the world of schedules and bosses in their sixties, or even fifties, to pursue the retirement dream. Others are ushered out the company door in favor of younger, cheaper workers who earn fewer benefits.

But that formula is breaking down as good workers get harder to find. Increased immigration isn't helping, because the lion's share of immigrants are unskilled or inexperienced. So savvy older workers are in demand as never before.

Fran Stetz could easily have been in a retirement home by now. Instead five afternoons a week, this 74-year-old widow and mother of six takes charge of what she calls the bag line at the Bonnie Bell cosmetic company's plant in Westlake, Ohio. Once a restaurant hostess, and later a nursing assistant, she retired for about six weeks, growing lonelier and more restless by the day.

At that very time, the Bonnie Bell company was inaugurating a retiree production-line program, hiring former teachers, nurses, even Roman Catholic nuns, aged 59 to 89 to package the company's lip gloss and other cosmetics.

"Mr. Bell and Mrs. Bell worked on a line when they were short of help. And they were in their late sixties," Mr. Stetz said. "That's when the idea came to him. They did the job well. Why couldn't they get others and get them off the couch and get them active. And that's exactly what he's done. I'm too young to sit at home and do nothing. I still want to be capable and able. Don't get me wrong. That paycheck is necessary to supplement my Social Security check." The Bonnie Bell program is exactly the model Bob Morison, Tammy Erickson, and a third author recommend in the Harvard Business Review article on retiring retirement. Mr. Morison and Ms. Erickson work for the Concours Group, a consulting firm that counsels executives in three hundred companies worldwide.

"Just in past couple of years, people have started to ask, 'Hey, it's not just our customers who are aging. It's also our employees,'" Mr. Morison said.

"Companies must begin to think about how to ease the retirement end so that people don't plummet off a cliff, be fully employed on Friday and then be on the golf course on Monday. We need to look at a more gradual scale-down from work so that we can retain people in the workforce beyond 55, 65 and on into productive years of older age," said Mr. Erickson.

"Most people aren't really looking forward to twenty-five or so years of do-nothing retirement," added Mr. Morison. "The Baby Boom Generation is on record as saying, 'We want to stay active, but probably not fulltime.'"
Retirement Relative New Concept in US
The very idea of retirement is a relatively new concept. In the United States it evolved with the Social Security program of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Until then, the Harvard article points out, all but the very top executives basically worked till they dropped!

Gradually, a comfortable retirement became part of the American dream, but as the costs of pensions and health insurance rise, corporate America is cutting benefits, forcing many employees to put off retirement.

But The Concours Group's Tammy Erickson says people are staying at work for positive reasons, too, as enlightened companies loosen rules about hours and schedules.

"A lot of older workers like flextime that allows them to work for perhaps three months, and then take a month off to travel. So flextime may have a different rhythm, but the concept of flextime is really a very important attractor throughout the age categories," he said.
Work Ethics of Older Employees Prized
Employment experts like Roger Gioia agree it's smart to hold onto older employees or bring them back to work. A former retailer and manufacturing executive, Mr. Gioia and his wife now lead a group of what they call strategic business futurists in Greensboro, North Carolina. Roger Gioia says companies are coming to appreciate the work ethic of older workers.

"I can't just sit around and loaf all the time," he said. "You can only hit so many golf balls. There are only so many fish out there before you get totally bored. You want to go back and DO something, to feel worthwhile in life. The older person is being sought after as competent, reliable, stable, shows up for work every day, doesn't give the manager a lot of lip, and doesn't have a nose ring or a tongue ring or an eye ring or, you know, one of those things!"

There are signs that while retirement certainly hasn't been retired in the United States, it is being delayed as never before. The latest government data show the most dramatic job gains among people fifty-five or older, more than three million of whom have been added to the workforce in the past three years.

The 35 million-member American Association of Retired Persons, one of the nation's most powerful lobbying groups, is getting the message. It has formed a partnership with a national staffing firm to find retirees full- and part-time work.