Green Light, Red Light: Roads and Roadblocks to Retirement

By Kleyman, Paul | Aging Today, November/December 2004 | Go to article overview

Green Light, Red Light: Roads and Roadblocks to Retirement


Kleyman, Paul, Aging Today


As 77 million boomers approach their so-called golden years, the U.S. pension and retirement system broadcasts mixed messages about how well it values them as potential economic and social contributors in the last third of their lives. This "In Focus" section examines some of the major conundrums facing the United States as its population ages rapidly-but vigorously.

BOOMERS TO REDEFINE WORKPLACE

"The American workplace is moving toward a devastating loss of human capital," Edward E. Potter told the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. "As the large baby boom generation moves toward retirement, a smaller pool of workers will be left to fill their positions," said Potter, president of the Employment Policy Foundation (EPF), an industry research organization in Washington, D.C. EPF research shows that by 2006, the demand for labor in the United States will exceed the supply, and by 2012, "the labor shortage may grow in excess of 6 million qualified workers."

Potter, who spoke at a hearing titled "Breaking the Silver Ceiling: A Generation of Older Americans Redefining the New Rules of the Workplace" on Sept. 20, 2004, said that unless something is done to increase labor participation, by 2030 the U.S. labor shortage could reach 35 million people-a $2.8 trillion loss to the nation's economy. He added, "With the transformation of the workplace to increasingly higher-skill jobs requiring post-high school education, we estimate that 80% of the labor shortage will be a skill shortage."

In spite of this growing need by employers to maintain their employee levels and despite the desire of older workers to remain on the job at least part time beyond the usual retirement age, outmoded policy barriers are restraining companies from offering phased retirement options, Potter said.

A recent AARP survey of 1,200 boomers found that more than 80% expect to work at least partly in their retirement years, Douglas C. Holbrook testified at the Senate hearing. Over half of boomers said they expect to work part time, and 15% said they plan to start a business, he said. Holbrook, vice president and secretary-treasurer of the AARP board of directors, said, "Our surveys tell us that older workers would value retirement jobs that provide them flexibility, meaningful work, health benefits, the ability to learn new skills, and that also enable them to keep mentally and physically active and to interact with others." The retired chief financial officer of the American Postal Worker Union also noted, "Like many younger workers, they seek work-life balance."

Holbrook emphasized that the wider implementation of flexible schedules, part-time work and nontraditional arrangements, such as job sharing, would be especially important for working older women. He observed, "Although older workers can be found in every occupation, fully one-third are in professional jobs where experience and institutional knowledge are valuable attributes." In addition, he said, "Women, including older women, are about four to five times as likely as older men to have administrative support jobs." (Older men are more apt to be in manufacturing, construction, transportation, communication and public utilities, he said.)

Recently, AARP released its study on the aging workforce, "Staying Ahead of the Curve 2004: Best Employer Practices for Mature Workers." Conducted by the respected firm Mercer Human Resources Consulting, the study reports, "In 2002, 14% of the workforce was aged 55 or older. By 2012,19% of workers will be at least 55, an increase of more than 10 million." Yet, according to the AARP study, "Many employers have not yet identified what the workforce changes may mean to their organizations and what they will have to do to meet their workforce needs."

"Continued employment of older workers could be a win-win situation for employers and employees," stated Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, in an address last year at the University of Notre Dame.

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