As the Workforce Ages...

While folks over 50 are looking for more flexibility, companies aren't racing to accommodate them, says the AARP's John Rother

There's a good chance that at least one person in your office has celebrated the Big Five-O recently. A baby boomer marks that milestone every seven seconds in the U.S., and four out of five say they'll be showing up for work at least part-time for years to come. In Beyond 50: A Report to the Nation on Economic Security, the AARP takes a look at the economic and social well-being of this fast-growing age group. Government data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics already show an uptick in the number of older workers punching in. Last year, 32.3% of people age 55 and over were in the labor force, the highest participation rate for this group since 1980.

Recently BusinessWeek Online reporter Jennifer Gill spoke with John Rother, the AARP's director of legislation and public policy, about recent labor-force trends and the 50-plus worker. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: John, do you think Corporate America is doing enough to both attract and keep 50-plus workers?


We're in a very tight labor market. And it's certainly less expensive to hold onto a good employee who's already trained and loyal to the company than it is to go out and recruit. Nonetheless, we don't see very many employers who are doing the kinds of things that would specifically be targeted to older workers -- to keep them on the job or to hire new ones. It's disappointing.

We did a survey in 2000 of employers, and [they] rated older workers very highly. And yet, they didn't have phased retirement programs or part-time work arrangements with continuing benefits. So they seem to appreciate the need and the skills, but they haven't yet figured out what to do to attract and retain older employees.

We know that most older workers want job flexibility. They want the opportunity to work fewer hours, to work part-year, or take more extended time off to be with grandchildren. Flexible benefits are part of that as well, so that people who cut back their hours aren't in a position of losing their health insurance or pensions.

Q: Why haven't more companies implemented phased retirement programs?


I think a lot of it is simply not having a model that they can copy or not being sure that the effort that it takes to get something up and running is going to pay off. The academic studies are in place, and there's the experience of companies that use these programs [to prove] that [phased retirement programs] are very effective. But for many human resources departments, it's not at the top of their list of things to focus on.

Q: If I'm a 50-plus job seeker, how can I figure out if a potential employer is serious about hiring older workers?


Again, every company and every job classification has differences. But what speaks most strongly to the sincerity of the interest in hiring older workers is hiring older workers. If there are other people who have been brought into the company at an older age, that certainly is [a] powerful [message].

It's not just age, though. One issue that I think people should take seriously is keeping their skills up to date. Some companies really disadvantage their older workers by not giving them the same training opportunities that they give to younger workers.

Q: If I'm looking for a part-time position or a flexible work arrangement, should I bring that up during the interview?


In a tight labor market, if the person feels that they have skills that would be helpful to the company, then it's certainly better to be clear upfront about what you're willing to do. But it's a question of how accurately you can assess your relative bargaining power.

Q: The Beyond 50 report finds that labor-force participation for people 65 and over appears to be bouncing back a bit. Why?


That's one of the key findings from our report. The trend to early retirement has taken a turn. In about 1985 [the number of people working beyond age 65] bottomed out, and there has been an increase since then.

Primarily it's [because of] opportunities in the labor force, but on top of that there are two trends driving this, and they're at different ends of the labor spectrum. Unfortunately, at the low end, with more and more people arriving at retirement without pensions or without much in the way of savings, there's going to be a very large number of people who are really going to have to work.

On the other end of the labor spectrum, people who are highly skilled and highly educated want to continue working because they have interesting jobs, and they see their job as part of their self-expression. For both of those reasons, we think that the number of people working beyond age 65, at least part-time, will probably increase in the future.

Q: How do you think baby boomers will approach retirement?


Baby boomers are at a point in their lives where their careers are very important to them. For many boomers, work is the key to their identity. Are they going to want to continue having some [working] relationship? Yes. But will they continue to want to work the hours that they're working, or necessarily just stay in the same job? I doubt that.

Q: Do you think we'll see more people working beyond 70 or even 75?


People who work in that age group are few and far between, and mostly they're one extreme or the other -- [either] they are trying to supplement a very inadequate level of income, or they're unique in their ability to make contributions. Or they are people who just love what they do. You know, like many people in Congress, for example.

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