Editor’s Note: This Generations Today column, “Aging While...” is sponsored by AARP Foundation. It focuses on creating and advancing innovative solutions that help older Americans build economic opportunity and social connectedness.
With vaccine administration well underway, it is time to forecast what’s ahead when the pandemic ends for adults ages 50 and older—especially vulnerable, low-income older adults, and those affected by systemic racism. In part 1 of a two-part series, we look at economic issues brought on by the pandemic and opportunities it presented. Part 2 will focus on issues of health and well-being.
Prediction: After the pandemic, more older workers will be unemployed and have difficulty getting hired, potentially pushing millions into poverty.
Unlike in past recessions, during the pandemic recession, workers ages 55 and older lost jobs at a higher rate than workers even a few years younger, and those who were Black or Hispanic fared worse. Once the pandemic ends, many older adults will need to work longer to repair the damage to their financial health.
Yet if history is any guide, it may be difficult for older adults to remain in the workforce longer or gain employment after a layoff. During and after the Great Recession, older adults took twice as long to find work as younger workers, and one-third were still unemployed a year after losing their jobs.
Experts believe after today’s pandemic older workers will face a much slower recovery, more difficulty finding jobs and more long-term unemployment. Stereotypes and myths about older workers costing more, and pervasive age discrimination play a role. Black, female or non-college degree-holding older workers will find it even tougher to find new jobs.
Today’s downturn could be more difficult for older workers because, during the Great Recession, many older workers became gig workers or took low-paying, part-time jobs as warehouse workers, ride-share drivers or home-health aides. Today, those jobs are much scarcer.
Some experts predict that the economic fallout from COVID-19 could push 1.4 to 2.1 million older Americans into poverty, joining the more than 25 million Americans ages 60 and older who are economically insecure and living at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.
Prediction: Older adults’ retirement security will be at greater risk following the pandemic.
A January 2021 poll found that as of last November, nearly 60 percent of Americans withdrew or borrowed money from an IRA or 401(k) during the pandemic, and 63 percent used those retirement savings to cover basic living expenses. Thirty-five percent said they now plan to work longer due to the financial impact the pandemic has had on retirement plans.
‘Employers will increasingly use skills-based criteria to hire and promote workers.’
While older adults contemplate the need to work longer to make up these shortfalls, many will be unable to do so. As many experience long-term unemployment and therefore face greater difficulty getting hired, they may drop out of the labor market and retire early. If they do, and claim Social Security earlier than their full-retirement age, it can cause sharp, permanent reductions to their annual benefits, loss of late-career earning years to save for retirement, and the need to stretch their money over many more non-working years. For example, if someone whose full retirement age was 67 retired at 62 and took Social Security, their monthly benefit would be permanently reduced by 30 percent.
Prediction: More low-income older adults will become entrepreneurs, freelancers and gig workers.
With older adults facing more barriers to finding work in the post-pandemic economy, they will increasingly turn to entrepreneurship as a viable way to make a living. One metric suggests this may be happening. As of mid-November 2020, applications entrepreneurs must file for tax purposes when starting a new business grew 38 percent over last November, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which is astonishing given the high rate of small business failures during the pandemic.
Older adults who start businesses are more likely to succeed, with a 50-year old being 2.8 times as likely to establish a successful high-growth startup as a 25-year old and more than twice as likely to start an extremely successful company as a 30-year-old. Success at starting a new business increases with age, even into one’s 60s and 70s. Still, many low-income older adults need confidence, skills, coaching and connections to succeed at becoming an entrepreneur, with AARP Foundation’s Work for Yourself@50+ being the only national program to provide it to low-income adults who are ages 55 and older.
After the pandemic, businesses expect to rely much more heavily on freelancers and temporary workers, so older adults also may turn to freelancing or gig work to make a living. These options can be a powerful vehicle to create economic opportunity and ensure sustainability. AARP Foundation’s Work for Yourself@50+ Freelancing Resource Center provides support to first-time freelancers and experienced independent workers with lessons and resources, including a tool to help aspiring freelancers find and secure work.
Although gig work and freelancing are valuable ways for older adults to earn income, we remain concerned that these jobs lack benefits such as health and unemployment insurance that come with traditional work arrangements. A wide range of policymakers and experts have called for a better safety net for the contingent workforce, either by extending current protections and benefits to them or by creating new arrangements such as portable benefits, or both.
Prediction: Employers will increasingly use skills-based criteria to hire and promote workers, creating new opportunities for older, low-income and diverse adults to compete for jobs.
The Business Roundtable, an association of major company CEOs, last December announced a multiyear initiative to focus their member companies’ hiring and promotion practices on candidates’ skills rather than on their degrees or credentials, and to improve equity, diversity and workplace culture. The new initiative will support efforts to address inequity in employment practices, including how people are hired and how they advance; and will work toward eliminating unintentional bias. This effort will accelerate skills-based hiring—which assesses a candidate’s competencies for a specific job instead of relying upon their educational credentials, particularly four-year degrees, as a proxy for skills.
Research supports the effectiveness of this new direction. A recent study where researchers combed through occupations and skills data discovered that up to 30 million U.S. workers without four-year college degrees possess the skills necessary to do jobs that pay 70 percent more, on average, than their current jobs. Labor experts and workforce organizations have also begun to advocate for skills-based hiring based on fairness and economic efficiency. People who have significant skills, but lack college degrees, represent a “massive talent pool with skills and potential to excel at in-demand jobs.”
Employers will also need workers who are ready to work remotely, as 84 percent of employers plan to expand remote work post-pandemic.
Widespread adoption of skills-based hiring can assist low-income ages 50 and older workers with lower education levels who have work experience to get hired if they can show their skills are a match for in-demand jobs in a post-COVID economy. Skills-based hiring also can help such workers get promoted from low- to middle-skilled jobs, increasing their economic security and mobility. And it can help diverse candidates gain entry to jobs that were previously denied to them.
Prediction: As the pandemic rapidly accelerated the digital transformation for businesses, older, low-income adults who have digital skills and are remote-work ready will have an edge in the post-COVID labor market, as will businesses that invest in reskilling and upskilling their workforces.
Before the pandemic, digital skills were increasingly essential for workers in almost all types of jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically sped up that trend. Ninety-seven percent of enterprise decision makers believe the pandemic has accelerated their company’s digital transformation.
Post-pandemic, employers will increasingly seek workers with a continuum of digital skills starting with “foundational digital skills”—the ability to use digital tools to complete tasks in various settings—as the digitization of jobs and tasks accelerates, even in many low-skilled jobs or those that have not traditionally required technology proficiency. Workers will need to move beyond basic digital skills to more advanced or specialized digital skills, which most higher wage, in-demand jobs posted today require.
Employers will also need workers who are ready to work remotely, as 84 percent of employers report they plan to significantly expand remote work post-pandemic. Being remote-work ready—including the ability to collaborate and communicate in a virtual environment—will become an enhancement of foundational workplace skills that employers need.
Many workers, especially those who are low-income and ages 50 and older, are woefully unprepared for this digital work world. Nearly one in three workers lack foundational digital skills, and as many as 28 percent of low-income, ages 50 and older workers lack digital literacy skills.
Reskilling and upskilling workers are important ways that business can narrow that gap for today’s workforce. Globally, more than half of companies plan to implement an upskilling program in their organizations to educate or train their employees on more advanced skills, while 47 percent will do the same for reskilling, training or educating their employees in new skills for a different job. Low-income older adults will surely benefit from business’s new focus on upskilling and reskilling their workforces for post-pandemic jobs.
Prediction: The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of new digital skills by older adults.
Many older adults have increased comfort with and willingness to use new technology to survive in an increasingly digital world. Whether working from home, staying in touch with family and friends, ordering groceries, conducting telemedicine visits or attending church services virtually, many older adults had no choice but to master new skills.
AARP Foundation helped many older adults learn to conduct financial transactions virtually and learn to use online platforms for the first time by accessing the free resources and workshops available at www.fintech.aarpfoundation.org. Even volunteering during the pandemic required mastering new digital skills. In AARP Foundation’s Experience Corps, our volunteers are using digital platforms to tutor underserved elementary students in reading, and AARP Foundation Tax-Aide volunteers use these digital tools to help prepare and file their mostly low-income, older clients’ tax returns.
Because of older adults’ new comfort with and willingness to use technology, fintech entrepreneurs will increasingly design and market their products and services in a way that is relevant and appealing to older adults to capitalize on this opportunity. This virtuous circle will continue to integrate older adults more fully into the digital economy as time goes on.
Lisa Marsh Ryerson is the president of AARP Foundation, in Washington, DC.