This article is part of a special series sponsored by AARP featuring the Future of Work.
In 2021, AARP outlined key trends shaping the future of work for people ages 50 and older in ASA’s Generations Now, explaining, “The world and the way we live in it are changing. Many of us are living longer, healthier lives. While the prospect of living longer is exciting, it also brings complexities and new challenges, including in the workplace.”
A mere two years later, these complexities and challenges have continued to shift, but their core intersections with the future of work remain fundamentally similar. When we acknowledge that 25% of the U.S. workforce will be ages 55 or older by 2031—just eight years from now—and that workers ages 75 and older represent the only age group estimated to expand in the U.S. workforce over the next 10 years, we can agree: It is up to all of us to harness the opportunities longevity and the growing aging population present for the future of work.
Longevity Creates Opportunities for Workers and Employers
Longevity benefits employees. We are living longer than the generations that came before us and we are working longer—either because we want to or need to. Research guided by principles of productive aging demonstrates that enabling people to work for as long as they are able and willing can help keep them mentally engaged. It also provides a sense of purpose, promotes social connections, and gives them more time to build financial security to support longevity.
‘Workers ages 50 and older are considered the most engaged of any age group.’
Katharine G. Abraham, a contributing author to the AARP “Megatrends Shaping the Future of Work for the 50-Plus” series, writes about contingent work: “The growth in opportunities for independent contractor work in recent years—and especially the growth in opportunities for online platform work—offers new options to older workers along their path towards full retirement.” It’s true that while gig work, freelancing, consulting, and phased retirement have always existed, many more workers have been moving into these forms of contingent work leading up to, during, and after their primary career(s), redefining work and retirement as we know it.
Longevity benefits employers. We know that there is a business case for healthy longevity and that older workers are key players in unlocking the benefits of a multigenerational workforce. Workers ages 50 and older are considered the most engaged of any age group, so retaining their participation in the workforce supports greater organizational productivity. When companies invest in lifelong learning for their employees, they build a more skillful, resilient and innovative workforce. And, as advances in technology shape our working lives, organizations can benefit from higher-order and un-automatable “5C” skills and capabilities (curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and change management) that experienced workers often gain through their time in the labor force.
What Is Holding Us Back from Maximizing Such Opportunities?
A fundamental truth we all must acknowledge is that longevity is not within reach for all people. Disparities in life expectancy have negative consequences for economies, employers and workers. Too often it is the case that people’s desires to work are stymied by a variety of factors, including poor health, competing caregiving responsibilities or ageism. Ageism and misperceptions among employers and colleagues are the primary barriers for older people to continue working.
According to the most recent AARP Value of Experience survey, 64% of workers ages 40 and older believe employees face age discrimination in the workplace. But, three out of four workers (73%) agree that age does not limit their ability to work, according to AARP’s most recent Global Employer Survey. Moreover, ageism is costly to economies—to the tune of $850 billion in the United States—according to a study by AAARP and The Economist Intelligence Unit.
‘Racism, sexism and ableism also hold people and organizations back from fully realizing the benefits of longevity in the workplace.’
Just as ageism prevents so many employees and job seekers from thriving professionally, we know that other forms of discrimination such as racism, sexism and ableism also hold people and organizations back from fully realizing the benefits of longevity in the workplace. Alex Camardelle, a contributing author to the AARP “Megatrends” site, writes about the COVID-19 pandemic’s interaction with forms of discrimination: “Black workers aged 55 and older have been 26 percent more likely than white workers to have lost their jobs since… [the beginning of the pandemic].”
As the population of older adults in the United States continues to diversify, it will be critically important to address the sense of job insecurity many older workers experience and to elevate solutions for income inequality that start at its source.
An undeniable factor preventing us from fully realizing the benefits of longevity as they relate to work is that, collectively, we are learning on-the-go when it comes to living longer, and many employers and policymakers are doing their best to react (let alone be proactive) when it comes to planning for a future workforce that is more age-diverse. It will take commitment from all of us and across all sectors—public, private and nonprofit—to learn the value and mechanics of age-inclusive work and to put these principles into action.
Here are three simple ways to discover more opportunities longevity presents for work:
1. Learn more about longevity. Review AARP’s Five Megatrends Shaping the Future of Work for the 50+, each of which offer data and stories from experts pointing us toward how we might ensure all workers thrive as they age.
3. Stand with employers committed to building age-inclusive work futures. Consider being part of AARP initiatives such as The Living Learning Earning Longer Collaborative and The Employer Pledge Program.
The future of work is at an inflection point. Fresh on the heels of the century’s greatest disruption to life as we know it, we now understand how truly agile workers, employers and systems can be in the face of global adversity; it’s time to learn how wise and creative we can be when presented with the opportunities of longevity.
Older workers are major contributors to economic growth and organizational success, and their impact will continue to grow. We have everything to gain by reimagining the future of work and investing in workers of all ages.
Julie Miller, PhD, MSW, is director of Financial Resilience Thought Leadership at AARP.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/AlessandroBiascioli