The Case for Creating an Older Workers Bureau
An agency focused on seasoned workers could further President Biden’s stated campaign goal of helping people who want to defer retirement continue contributing to society.
Older workers need help. The problems are multiple and started decades ago. Over the years, the federal government’s unvoiced message has been the same as industry’s: “You’re largely on your own.” Ageism and discrimination are a problem in the United States, and globally. The coronavirus pandemic triggered the reversal of a decades-long trend to defer retirement. Now, inflation threatens everyone on a fixed income.
When President Biden ran for office, his campaign released a plan for older Americans that included a focus on preserving and strengthening Social Security, and providing help for older workers who wanted to remain in the workforce. Both are needed but clearly neither are priorities. An Older Workers Bureau could take the lead in highlighting the problems and build support for needed change.
The issues facing older workers have been discussed on several websites, including a recent four-part Bloomberg opinion series, which declared that “America’s Retirement Crisis is a Financial Crisis Too.” A new report from the Social Security Administration stated that scheduled benefits will have to be reduced after 2034. The adequacy of retirement income is clearly a concern, but it is unlikely Congress could agree to help those within a few years of retirement. There are changes, however, that could help workers plan their lives, defer retirement and continue contributing to society.
Older Workers Are the Answer to Talent Shortages
The “Great Resignation” accelerated a labor shortage that dates back years. In 2018, Korn Ferry released a report, “The Global Talent Crunch,” which posited that the U.S. “could miss out on $1.748 trillion in revenue due to labor shortages.” The estimates are the “unrealized output” when companies do not have adequate talent. Their analysis was silent on the cost to society when vacancies in healthcare, law enforcement and education are not filled.
Talent shortages are worse today. Job vacancies have averaged over 11 million since last October, but there are currently only 5.9 million unemployed workers. Early in the pandemic, there were five job seekers for every vacancy. Today there are 0.5 job seekers per vacancy. Unemployment is historically low at 3.6%. People that want a job have one.
Scarcity is a problem in virtually every industry. The current spate of flight cancellations, for example, are attributable in part to shortages of pilots and air traffic controllers. The hours of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., had to be reduced because of staff shortages.
Demographic trends make it clear: these shortages will worsen if employers fail to entice older workers to “unretire.” People are living longer, there are fewer babies, life expectancy today means people who live to 65 can expect to live another 20 years, a quarter of their lives. Studies show people who continue to work enjoy healthier, more satisfying lives.
A central issue that will have to be addressed is the role ageist stereotypes and discrimination play in creating unpleasant, hostile work environments. It’s been reported that many older workers were encouraged or forced to quit during the pandemic. The U.S. cannot afford to lose the talent prematurely.
Studies show common stereotypes, such as, older workers being resistant to change, are not valid. They are sometimes at a disadvantage with jobs requiring physical skills but those jobs are disappearing. They frequently have a decided advantage with jobs requiring effective interpersonal skills, experience in a team environment, emotional intelligence, or a strong work ethic. Older workers are also more likely to be good in a crisis. And employers can be more confident they will perform well without direct supervision. Their skills and commitment make them more productive than young workers.
Hearing Confirming the Importance of Older Workers
The issues affecting older workers were the subject of a February hearing of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, “Building a Better Labor Market: Empowering Older Workers for a Stronger Economy.” The first two speakers, Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor from The New School for Social Research, and Monique Morrissey, an economist from the Economic Policy Institute, outlined the problems affecting older workers. Both supported the creation of an Older Workers Bureau.
The third speaker, Jocelyn Frye, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, made the point that older women workers are often missing from discussions about how “to support workers, improve workplaces, and strengthen our economy.” That comment summarizes the role of the proposed Bureau.
The final speaker, Andrew Briggs, an economist from the American Enterprise Institute, made comments that reflected tired ageist stereotypes, but implicitly supported better jobs for older workers.
Defining the Mission of an Older Workers Bureau
President Biden made his commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion clear on his first day in office. Older workers also have to deal with career barriers and warrant the same attention. A specific goal of the Bureau should be to highlight the prevalence and cost of age discrimination. It could support conferences, research studies, advocate with industry groups, propose laws to support the mission, and coordinate the work of similar state agencies. It could work with human resource groups as well as unions and professional associations.
A service that is badly needed and will need government support is making counseling for older workers widely available. Financial counseling is already a big business but only a few companies make it available to employees. Workers have to make consequential life choices and they should be able to evaluate the alternatives. The Bureau could work with organizations like AARP to make counseling available locally.
The Bureau should also support training programs to enhance workers’ skills. It’s widely recognized that the country’s workforce needs ongoing training to keep up with new technology. Surveys show older workers want to develop new skills. This is also consistent with the goals advocated by DEI leaders. Employers could work with local colleges to identify specific local training needs.
An idea that is sometimes resisted by employers and unions is adopting flexible work arrangements to help workers transition to retirement. The possibilities are many – days off, reduced hours, extended weeks off, special assignments, contract arrangements, time off for caregivers. A 2017 GAO report examined these issues.
The Biden Plan for Older Workers advocated for legislation to protect people from discrimination. Court decisions have weakened the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and older workers need protection against unfair employment decisions. The Bureau could take the lead in an initiative similar to the DEI movement to advocate for eliminating ageism and age discrimination.
In 2019, then-acting chair of the EEOC Victoria Lipnic made the case for older workers in a message during Older Americans Month.
“Today's strong economy is good news for workers as there are millions of job openings and many workers are in high demand,” Lipnic stated. “While that should be good news for older workers, we see little sign that employers are seeking out older workers to fill that demand. Many employers have diversity and inclusion strategies and tactics - but most don't include age. That's a lost opportunity. Research shows that employers would be doing themselves a lot of good by valuing the talent of experienced workers as part of a diverse, multi-generational workforce, such as improving organizational performance and individual productivity, and reducing employee turnover.”