When Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) was conceived of in the 1960s –a period in which women began entering the workforce en masse– its mission was to make the labor market equally accessible to women. Today, those efforts have expanded to include building pathways to economic security for women, their families and seniors.
Women’s History Month is a great time to reflect on the journey of older workers in the labor force across the years and the economic insecurity some face. Many older workers find themselves struggling financially and unprepared for retirement. The long-term unemployed, along with older workers who are recalibrating due to the economic downturn, job loss, children leaving the nest, divorce or other life changing events, often need assistance to return to the workforce or make a career change. Age discrimination and lack of access to retraining are barriers that impact the employability of older workers. Policies that promote the hiring of mature workers and integrate them in training programs (which typically tend to focus on Millennials and Generation Y), would go a long way toward moving this cohort into economic security.
WOW’s research on the needs and incomes of individuals aged 65+ and living independently in the community indicates that 45% of seniors– 40% of men and 49% of women– are economically insecure. Addressing this challenge over the long-term will require higher-paid work and new skills development for low wage workers –especially women. Workforce development assistance programs should aim to improve or augment the skills of older workers so that they will qualify for higher skilled, higher wage jobs. Women in particular would benefit from career counseling, education including vocational-technical programs and STEM initiatives, job training, and internships or apprenticeship programs for middle-skilled and high paying jobs.
Home Health Aides and Personal Care Aides (direct-care workers) are among the fastest growing jobs – about 90% of which are filled by women. In 2010, the average age of a direct-care worker was 42. One study estimates that “by 2018 …one third of personal care aides will be 55 and older, an increase from 22% in 2008.” Unfortunately, a $10.58 median hourly wage for all direct-care workers fails to provide a fair living wage. Therefore, this kind of work–while increasingly important for an aging society–is unlikely to be an answer to older women’s economic insecurity dilemma.
Among barriers to older women’s employment is the notion that older workers cannot contribute to the success of an organization. While discredited, this belief continues to produce age discrimination in the workplace. Yet an older worker is quite capable of adapting and mastering new skills, even those that are technology-related. A prospective employer might hesitate to invest in a 55-year old new hire out of concern that s/he may not remain an employee for the next 15 – 20 years. However, neither will a younger hire. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014, “median employee tenure was generally higher among older than younger ones…A larger portion of older workers than younger workers had 10 years or more of tenure.”
Communities and employers benefit when older workers are encouraged to remain in the workforce for as long as they are able and wish. It makes good business and economic sense to welcome and retain these employees. Middle-aged and older workers offer experience and expertise and they tend to be more professional, mature and loyal.
Although the age at which people qualify for full Social Security retirement benefits varies depending on the year they were born, life expectancy is longer than for previous generations –especially among women– and many will be mentally and physically capable of working through their 70s and sometimes their 80s. Working beyond 65 provides individuals with an opportunity to defer retirement, continue paying payroll taxes, delay accessing retirement funds and continue growing their savings and investments. Gainfully employed older individuals will not only increase their own economic security, but will reduce pressure and dependence on Social Security and other public support systems. Plus, according to the New York Academy of Medicine’s (NYAM) Age Smart Employer Compendium of Strategies and Practices, “longer work lives will generate increased consumer spending, which drives economic growth and new job creation.”
Investments in effective, expanded, multigenerational, and diverse public/private training, internships, apprenticeships, and education programs, along with nondiscriminatory hiring practices and workforce development systems, are crucial in maximizing the performance and productivity of workers of all ages. And a productive workforce is central to being able to compete as a nation in the globalized economy of the 21st century.