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Economy & Business

Retiring retirement: As people stay in the workforce longer, employers may have to adjust, too

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 29, 2011 - On Friday, April 29, Fran Hoyt's morning will likely unfold as usual. Around 6:30, she'll wake up, eat a quick breakfast in her University City apartment and arrive at work by 7:30.

Mid-morning, Hoyt will take her daily tea break at her desk with a cup of mint tea and half an orange scone. She'll finish up a few press releases, update a website, eat a yogurt for lunch, then put in a few more hours.

But when it's time to leave, she'll be doing so for good.

Hoyt, a communications associate for the Gladys and Henry Crown Center for Senior Living, spent eight years at her current job and has a lifetime of other jobs to point to, as well. The 70-year-old has a Ph.D. in history and taught for many years, she worked at college libraries, raised two daughters and moved with her ex-husband's career as an architect.

Now, grandchildren and aging siblings are among the reasons that on April 29, Hoyt will leave the workforce all together.

"I'm excited," she says, "and I'm counting the days because I'm closing the door on this phase of my life and starting a new one."

For many older Americans, however, the phase of working may continue for years to come.

In a report looking at the older population, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that in the future, not only will there be a significantly larger population of older people, but they'll also be more racially and ethnically diverse. The population itself will present many challenges, the report notes, including what to do with Medicare and Social Security.

For Hoyt, there's mostly excitement about her retirement, with just a tinge of worry about her finances.

"If I live 20 years, I'm not going to have enough money," she says. "If I live 15 years, I should be able to make it. If I live 10 to 12, I should be fine."

Living Longer And Better?

In 1940, 9 million Americans were 65 and older, according to the Social Security Administration. In 2000, that number was 34.9 million.

The Census Bureau projects that number was 40.2 billion in 2010 and will more than double to 88.5 billion in 2050.

And while the number of working people 65 and up has risen in general from 1977 to 2007, the specifics reveal interesting trends. For instance, the number of men working increased by 75 percent. For women, it was 147 percent. And most are working full-time, says Jacqueline Midkiff, a regional economist with the BLS.

Between 1995 and 2007, the number of older workers working full-time almost doubled, while those working part-time increased 19 percent. In 2007, 56 percent of older workers worked full-time.

Wages for older workers remain behind that of younger workers. In 2007, they made $605 a week, compared with $695 for all workers. Over time, however, their earnings have risen at a slightly faster pace than the general workforce.

While more people are working longer for financial reasons, it's important to note some other reasons too, says Russ Signorino, executive director of the Gateway EITC Community Coalition.

"They're better educated than the generation before them," he says. "And it's going to be more natural for them to keep working past what had been the traditional retirement age."

More people have white-collar jobs now, he says, as opposed to jobs that require physical labor, and when they reach 65, they feel better for longer.

Most people also have six or seven major career changes in their lifetime, using a set of core skills along the way, says Joel Reaser, senior vice president of the National Older Workers Career Center.

"Those folks are more active," Reaser says. "They are healthier than previous generations, and there's a ton of them."

Reaser knows this through his job with NOWCC, a non-profit based in Arlington, Va., that helps match older workers with government agencies. He also knows it first hand. At 70, Reaser still works full time, runs the occasional 10K, is renovating his family room and finds time to play with his grandchildren.

"We are a sandwich generation, in a sense," he says. "I'm still paying off college bills and up until last year, had elderly parents to attend to."

A Human Resource

While some seniors may choose to stay in the workforce, employers might not have a choice about the age of the people they hire, at least not in the future.

From 2006 to 2016, a BLS report projects, the growth of core workers, 25 to 54, will grow 2.4 percent in the civilian labor force. During that same time, people 65 to 74 in the labor force will increase by nearly more than 80 percent.

In that time, employers will have to find ways to attract and retain older workers, Reaser says. And they'll also have to bust some myths about older workers along the way, including that older workers aren't tech savvy and are more expensive because they get sick more often.

"That's a myth," Reaser says. "Older workers are far more reliable in terms of coming to work. They have less accidents."

However, when they are sick, he says, they do tend to stay out longer, so it's a trade-off.

One issue for employers may be focusing on the health of older employees, he says. Maybe they provide a fitness center on site and encourage all employees to use it.

NOWCC highlights best practices, which include creating an advisory group of older employees, considering incentives like 401-k catch-up plans and offering ways to provide for caregiving with flexible spending accounts.

Employers may also have to look at tailoring medical benefits to meet the needs of older workers, Midkiff says. But dealing with them shouldn't be much different than any other group.

"It's just an aspect of diversity," she says.

For now, though, that's not much of an issue, Signorino says.

With millions out of work and looking for jobs, employers today have a lot to choose from. That won't always be the case, though, he says, and when the economy improves, employers will have to adjust to an older workforce.

Reaser agrees. "You want the knowledge in their brains to be around for awhile, and the skills they have," he says. "And the least expensive way to do that is to keep them happy."

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