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For older workers, renewing skills and embracing flexibility can lead to success

By Victoria Carter

This is the first article in a series to be published in the PDC Post about challenges facing older workers, and ways they can succeed despite these challenges.


How adaptable are older workers?

The question is an important one, because many businesses and organizations favor younger employees. Why? Because in addition to their typically bigger paychecks – a legacy of having served as employees for longer, and a dividend for experience – older workers have a reputation for being less adaptable, and less technically savvy.

So what light does research shed on the issue? Are employers justified in hiring a 30-year-old rather than a 50-year-old? And is it smart for employers to quietly “retire” employees once they reach a particular age?

In a 2006 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is referenced saying that employers generally have positive views of older workers. They are recognized for qualities like knowledge, wisdom, resilience, and the willingness and ability to quickly learn new tasks.

The ability to adapt to learning a new task, in fact, exposes a core issue: Most jobs have knowledge and skill requirements that change. Of course the ability of an older worker to thrive while change is happening can be affected by training, personnel policies, and ageism at work.

Statistical insights

Each career stage brings challenges and opportunities to adapt. Even relatively younger workers face hurdles to continued employment. So what are the statistics related to older workers?

Actually, the statistics don’t look particularly bad. Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that in 2016 34.4 million Americans aged 55 and up — who were still in the labor force — were employed, while 1.3 million were looking for work. Meanwhile, for that year, individuals age 55 and older made up 22.4% of the labor force, and 16.7% of the unemployed, excluding those not actively seeking work.

That said, it’s notoriously hard to track how many older workers want to work but have given up the fight, so to speak. Many of us are aware of talented older workers who are now “working from home” or are doing occasional or light part-time work — people who we know would love to be more vigorously using their skills. Discouragement resulting from underutilization of someone’s talents, and, of course, long-term unemployment can be a problem for the mature worker and result in their exiting the workforce.

It’s only been recently that many employers have become more ready to offer lower-level jobs to formerly unwanted workers as it’s become harder to find people they consider to be their ideal workers. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that highly skilled older workers are being invited to step back into positions of responsibility.

The National Council on Aging has concluded that “Nearly half a million older adults aged 55-64 and 168,000 aged 65+ who wanted to work in 2014 were unemployed 27 weeks or longer.  (These figures are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Meanwhile, “half of those who had experienced unemployment between 2010-1014 were still not working at the end of that five-year period (AARP Public Policy Institute).

Consequently, according to the National Council on Aging, “In 2014, 218,000 mature workers indicated they wanted employment but were discourage by their job prospects” (again relying on figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

At this time, several years later, this figure undoubtedly has changed.  Nonetheless, it’s empirically clear that many older workers have not been successful in finding their niche in today’s workplace.

Ways to get back to work  

What are some options for older workers? We’ll provide several ideas here and in future articles in this PDC Post series. And we plan to elaborate with interviews and discussions of additional resources.

The first option chosen by many older workers, not surprisingly, is to seek employment in their longtime field of work. To enhance chances for success, career counselors advise older workers to project a positive attitude and keep their skills up to date.  In Massachusetts, the unemployed job seeker drawing unemployment benefits is required to register with a state-sanctioned career-resource center. These centers provide seminars, counseling sessions, and skill-building workshops that can help in a job search.

One option that appeals to many workers is a “makeover” — a life-style change that includes pursuing a longtime passion or interest. An example of this is Jon Dreyer, age 63, and a former high-tech employee. He now plays bass in Boston-area jazz bands.

In an article by Robert Weisman published in December in the Boston Globe, Mr. Dreyer comments: “Life is an improvisation, not a composition.”

Another option, which can extend the financial resources of those looking to find their next niche, is to take a part-time job. Although these jobs are often at minimum or near-minimum wage, this income can serve as a bridge to a more substantive career move.

For some older workers, “doing customer service” might be a difficult step to take after years of working in higher-level positions. However, many older workers — the ones ready to segue into new work — demonstrate flexibility by relinquishing the sense of identity that came with a particular profession.

For those whose profession lends itself to this, working as a consultant is an option.  Jobs as diverse as actuary and event planner can be done on an independent basis.  It helps to have previously developed a network of contacts.

Networks of individual consultants also can help refer business to one another.  And, support groups, often made up of individuals with similar employment difficulties, exist to encourage older workers.

Getting the finances right

Wholesale career moves like pursuing a hobby or passion, or creating a start-up business, or working independently as a consultant, are not economically feasible for everyone. For anyone near the end of their working years, a review of assets, obligations and projected expenses is a good idea.

So for many, a wise idea may be to visit to a financial planner.  Understanding the risks involved in a new endeavor is important when opting for a creative or entrepreneurial path, and a planner may be able to help an older worker examine his or her own particular situation to know the best next step.

Finally, it is helpful to know about programs designed to help older workers transition back to the traditional labor market. For example, The National Council on Aging ( manages the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). Under a grant from the US Department of Labor, SCSEP partners with employers to offer on-the-job experience.

Participants are required to continue actively searching for a job, must be aged 55 and up, and have income low enough to qualify. The PDC currently has an opening for a SCSEP employee.


Victoria Carter, after a career as an actuary, is reinventing herself as an artist and as an economic evaluator. She can be reached at

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