Academic journal article Journal of Employment Counseling

The Role of Opportunity Structures in Older Women Workers' Careers

Academic journal article Journal of Employment Counseling

The Role of Opportunity Structures in Older Women Workers' Careers

Article excerpt

This article describes contextual factors that exert influence on whether, when, and how people retire. The authors use opportunity structures as a framework for describing these processes. Interview data were gathered from 21 late-career women; 2 illustrative cases depict differing career circumstances. Several important contextual factors were identified, including organizational membership, occupational membership, work peers, and the history of opportunities. Depending on the circumstances, these factors can enhance or limit the range of retirement-related options. Employment counselors can help expand this range by advocating training and job placement centers, examining norms and combating stereotypes, and encouraging job redesign.

The age structure of the U.S. population has changed dramatically in the past century. Since 1900, the percentage of Americans 65 years of age and older has more than tripled. Currently, approximately 13% of the population is 65 years old or older; that percentage is expected to rise to 20% by the year 2030 (American Association of Retired Persons, 1999). The rapid growth of the older population is anticipated to continue long into the future as the massive baby boom generation reaches age 65 and beyond.

As the population ages, more Americans are facing the decision of whether, when, and how to retire. There is an increasing need for employment counselors to understand the many paths that people's careers may take as they reach what has traditionally been "retirement age." Employment counselors can no longer expect that employees will necessarily shift from work to retirement in a one-step move. With knowledge of such changes, counselors are better equipped to help workers make feasible career and retirement-related decisions that suit their needs.

The career paths older workers follow as they transition into retirement are varied and often complex. Feldman (1994) indicated that some older workers may phase out of their jobs over time as they move into full retirement whereas others may begin new careers after official retirement. Others may retire completely from paid work in one single move, whereas still others may continue working indefinitely. Canaff (1997) described several career options for older workers, including consulting or contract work, part-time work, and mentoring new, younger workers.

Decisions about which career path to take in later life are made partially according to individual desires (Menchin, 1993). For instance, some workers may be highly motivated to work well beyond the traditional retirement age because their work is inherently interesting. However, to serve the growing population of older workers effectively, it is important to recognize that decisions about whether, when, and how to retire are a function not only of desire but also of context. That is, the decisions older workers make about their futures are structured, in part, by the contexts in which they live and work.

The purpose of this article is to describe the career trajectories of people in their later work lives, with a particular focus on the contextual factors that influence changes in their careers and decisions about retirement. In addition, on the basis of the pervasive influence of those contextual factors, we make several suggestions about how employment counselors might aid employees in making decisions about the transition to retirement.


Career Development Within the Life Context

The trajectories of older workers' careers have been studied extensively in recent years, likely due, at least in part, to the need for organizations to understand and effectively use an aging workforce population. The transition that workers make in the later stages of their careers is generally now conceptualized as determined by multiple factors (Henretta, Chan, & O'Rand, 1992) with individuals showing unique and complex patterns, such as returning to employment following official retirement and second retirements (Henretta, 1997). …

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