Lots of people are talking about the implications of our aging population. In our blog on the U.S. Census results, we talked about the importance of engaging more older adults in the workforce. To do that, we have to first reframe older workers, which means getting rid of false assumptions and stereotypes.

The picture of older workers is not simple. Instead of broadly categorizing older adults as unproductive or uniform in health and financial situations, we need to recognize the range of possibilities – and the potential for earning – that this group represents. We should make it possible for all of us to continue to earn income in fair and meaningful ways as we get older.

The new reality is that we are living longer and producing fewer children. (Some would even argue that this isn’t a bad thing.) So, it is time to think differently about problems that have outgrown our previous solutions. Leaving a chunk of the population to founder is not acceptable, either because of lack of social support or because of an unwillingness to employ us as we age.

What if, instead of trying to make our population grow rapidly again, we find solutions that address where we are already? Part of the answer may come from rethinking work – and who does it. But, first, we have to drop our assumptions about older people:

Myth 1: Older people cannot work

Older people often can work. Don’t assume anything just based on age. One person at 65 is leading a company and another is facing health conditions that make a traditional 40-hour work week impossible. Older adults may be supporting a household that includes multiple generations, or may live alone and have plenty of free time. Reaching traditional retirement age does not make a person suddenly incapable.

Myth 2: Work has to happen at a certain time in one place

Reframing older workers means reframing work. Not all work has to be full-time, on location, or within certain hours. New work arrangements can bring people into the workforce – and away from needing outside support. We need more options that allow people to work differently, while maintaining financial independence and access to health care. Rethinking work will help more than just older adults. It will help all of us.

Myth 3: Older people are sick and unhealthy

Health does, on average, decrease with age. However, it does not happen at a specific point, in the same way, to the same extent, or at the same rate for everyone. We cannot make accurate assumptions about the health of one individual just based on age. Plus, many sources of poor health can be attributed to other factors that need to be addressed, like lack of access to health care and inequitable distribution of resources. Not just older people deal with these issues. Health is not just a matter of age.

Myth 4: Older people don’t want to work

We all want to contribute, no matter our age. Many older adults want to work, but can’t get hired. Additionally, many older adults are already contributing in unpaid, but crucial, ways. Older adults contribute millions of volunteers hours in the U.S. annually. A quarter of children under 5 receive care from grandparents. As a society, we are missing out on the valuable resource of so many talented and willing older adults.

Reframing older workers for a new era

Right now, we are facing immediate workforce shortages. The pandemic has put people out of work, but it has also shown us that there are other ways to work. As we rethink how we work and strive to stimulate the economy, we need to include older adults. This means making changes like:

  • Engaging older adults in training and re-skilling programs. In today’s world, everyone needs to keep upgrading skills and adapting to frequent change.
  • Promoting the hiring of older adults so employers actively recruit them. We often hold false ideas about older workers and it is time to remove those barriers.
  • Increasing consequences for age discrimination. Right now, it is too easy to use age as a reason to fire or not hire someone.
  • Reimagining what “work” looks like, including adopting flexible schedules and other alternatives. This creates opportunities for many people who could work outside of traditional schedules and locations.

Reframing older workers is part of a bigger conversation about how we are going to respond to a new social structure where the population is older. We are already there. To find a solution to these challenges, we must first take a different and more realistic look at older workers and what all of us need as we get older.

Sara Breindel, Changing the Narrative blogger

Cover photo by Ono Kosuki at Pexels.