According to the 2020 U.S. Census, population growth is slowing. In the U.S., and globally, the population is also becoming older. People are discussing what problems this will pose and how to address them. One frequent theme is how to take care of the older adults who will not be working and will need care. We absolutely do need to figure out better solutions for health and long-term care, but this discussion also misses something important: Most older adults do not need care and not everyone wants to stop working.

Rethinking assumptions

It’s time to challenge our assumptions about how we work. Take retirement. Everyone doesn’t need or want to retire at the same age. Right now, we have a large group of older adults who want to work and can work – but are underemployed. In Changing the Narrative’s 2020 study of workers age 50 and up in Colorado, 74% of respondents said they were actively looking for work or would be in the next year. Some of this is due to financial need, but it also often comes from a desire to keep contributing.

Labor force participation has dropped for adults. However, labor force participation by older adults was actually increasing before the COVID-19 pandemic. It just wasn’t increasing as fast as the growth of the older population. This demographic shift could foretell a shrinking labor force. But, part the issue may be opportunity. In other words, perhaps we need to make it possible for more older adults to work.

For those who want to and can work, we can remove barriers:

  • Age discrimination keeps people out of the workplace. Dropping out of the workforce isn’t a choice if your age prohibits you from getting hired, getting training or is used as a reason to let you go.
  • We must rethink training and education in the age of longevity. We shouldn’t stop career education at a certain age. That is not enough to sustain decades of working. All adults need regular re-skilling, internships and, sometimes, support for changing careers – regardless of age.
  • The traditional 9-5/40 hour work week doesn’t work for many people, not just older adults. But, there are many other ways to get the job done, as the pandemic has shown us, whether it’s working from different locations or on alternative or part-time schedules. Alternative work arrangements could bring more people into the workforce.

It’s an opportunity, not a catastrophe

It’s time to reframe how we look at the changing population. We have an opportunity to build a society where more people can stay engaged, improving their own lives, as well as contributing to our economic health. There are many older adults who could be working if we remove the barriers. Plus, there are benefits to having older workers on your team, as well as benefits to having multiple generations in the workplace. Older workers bring resilience, commitment, problem-solving ability and soft skills that come only from experience.

We need new solutions if we want to live in equitable, healthy, sustainable and inclusive communities. To do so, we must think beyond our usual assumptions. That includes taking a deeper and more realistic look at older people and how we make decisions that impact who is able to work.

Sara Breindel, Changing the Narrative blogger

Cover Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels