Older Americans in the workforce essential to economic future

Some economists predict that by 2030, the United States could experience a labor shortage of 35 million workers. Many businesses, including retail giants such as Wal-Mart and McDonalds, have responded to a looming labor shortage by encouraging older workers to remain in the workforce.

But a recent study issued by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) finds that many of the government’s existing employment assistance programs are not providing computer training and other high-tech skills to workers over the age of 55, a demographic that may soon constitute roughly one-third of the entire American workforce.

Older workers enrolled in a computer training class in Sacramento, Calif., learning such skills as keyboarding, office applications and Internet use.

Nancy Morrow-Howell, Ph.D., a professor at Washington University’s George Warren Brown School of Social Work and a leader in the emerging field of productive aging research, contends that America’s economic future may well hinge on our ability to help older adults continue making contributions to society.

“We can’t afford to waste this valuable resource,” says Morrow-Howell. “Many older Americans are interested in remaining or returning to the workforce, and despite the anti-discrimination policies that protect them, there is still overt and covert age discrimination in the workplace and an unjustified belief that older people are less capable of being trained for a new job.”

According to the GAO, the Workforce Investment Act requires employment assistance program providers to report certain information so that the Secretary of Labor can determine how well job assistance providers are performing. The information includes how many participants found jobs and how much participants’ earnings increased. Program providers report that these measures are a disincentive to enrolling older workers into their programs.

Employment characteristics of older Americans are not the same as younger Americans. As an example, an older employee who may be looking for a part-time job may not rate as high on the report as a younger employee looking for a full-time position.

Thus, many older Americans are receiving only job search assistance, not in-depth job training.

Morrow-Howell, co-editor of the book Productive Aging: Concepts and Challenges, agrees with the GAO’s recommendation to the Secretary of Labor to adjust the performance measures of the Workplace Investment Act so that there are no barriers to enrolling older Americans in the employment assistance programs.

“There needs to be some major policy changes when considering older Americans in the workplace,” says Morrow-Howell. “Employment assistance programs need to re-examine their training programs with consideration to the needs of older people. Employers should be more open to offering part-time jobs with prorated benefits or job sharing to older employees. In addition to expanding the enforcement of age discrimination law, the government could offer tax credits to employers who provide training for older Americans.”

Aside from policy changes, Morrow-Howell notes that there needs to be an overall shift in thought about older people.

“The idea that older people do not perform as well as younger employees in the workplace is a myth,” says Morrow-Howell. “There is evidence that older people are very reliable workers, and in general, older people are very interested in lifelong learning. We need to maximize older Americans’ contributions to society through encouraging the transformation of ‘traditional’ retirement by expanding opportunities for working and volunteering.”