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Challenges to Working Longer

March 25th, 2010 by admin in Careers


Since the recession started, there has been increasing attention being paid to working longer and there are several bright spots. Last month, I profiled Dianne Fuller Doherty who is still going strong in a full time career past the age of 70. Afterwards we talked with Marc Freedman  of Civic Ventures, whose passion for second careers  has been widely covered.

Recently the Towers Watson 2010 Retirement Confidence Survey  found that although th age at which workers say they expect to retire changed little from a year ago, the percentage of workers who expect to retire after age 65 increased from 11% in 1991 to 33% in 2010. It’s up nearly 10% in the last five years.

We recently asked Tamara Erickson, who wrote Retire Retirement, (Harvard Business School Press 2008) about this trend. She has an optimistic outlook, but recognizes there may be challenges ahead if baby boomers chose to work longer.

AZ. When you wrote Retire Retirement, Career Strategies for the Boomer Generation, it was ahead of the fiscal meltdown, and 10% unemployment. What has been the biggest misperception you’ve faced about the book since the recession began?

TE. I didn’t foresee the speed with which the nature of work available in the US economy would change.  The recession accelerated the shift away from the manufacturing base toward knowledge-intensive work, to an extent that I didn’t fully anticipate.  The US lost millions of manufacturing jobs very abruptly over the past 18 months.  As a result, we have the paradox today of high unemployment and growing skill shortages in a number of knowledge-intense sectors of the economy.  The prediction that there will be work available for Boomers who want to continue working post-traditional retirement ages is now true only for those with specialized skills or knowledge.

AZ. How do you think the significant erosion of wealth caused by the downturn, not to mention, the fall-off in home prices, even among those homes not in foreclosure, has impacted the baby boomers ability to remake themselves? What suggestions do you have for taking a longer view? 

TE. It has clearly shifted the mix of the portfolio lives that Boomers will need to create – toward having a higher percentage of time devoted to income-producing activities.  However, I don’t think there’s a major philosophical impact – certainly not to the extent portrayed in some media reports.  Boomers have always intended to remain active – to remain involved in constructive, contributing activities.  They were never planning to spend their entire post-retirement years in leisure. They may need to spend a little less time doing strictly volunteer activities and instead do things that earn some income, but that’s a shift in the type of activity, not from leisure to activity.

AZ. When you talk about Career Curve archetypes, types of work available, the patterns for each seem very different. Are baby boomers destined to continue in the same archetype they had during their working lives? Or is it possible to transition from one archetype to another and if so how? 

TE. They’re not destined to continue in the same archetype – and one of my major hopes is that people will use the book to think carefully about their archetype and therefore the types of activities they would enjoy and find most meaningful.  Today only about 25% of the workforce overall is engaged in their work; a significant proportion of the remaining 75% are probably doing work that does not fit their archetype.  I hope people who fall in the 75% will use the “retirement” break as an opportunity to re-think and change directions.  A number of the tips in the book are aimed at ways to do that – the basic advice is to experiment in low risk/ low commitment ways until you find something that you feel very excited about.

AZ. Do we still have a “Workforce Crisis” of jobs needing to be filled, or did the Great Recession put that on hiatus especially in the financial, automotive and publishing industries? The country’s unemployment numbers don’t appear to be budging, and older workers, in particular, are taking longer to return to work than other age groups. 

TE. We have a paradox:  persistent high unemployment (that will probably remain for at least another 5 years) AND growing shortages in key skill sets.  One problem with knowledge-based jobs is that they tend to be less fungible.  In other words, if someone is laid off from a manufacturing job in one industry, there is a reasonable probability that they are qualified to perform a manufacturing job in a different industry.  However, knowledge jobs do not tend to span industries (or do so to a much lesser extent).  So, an accountant cannot immediately work as a nurse, for example.  As our economy is comprised of a higher and higher percentage of knowledge work, the likelihood of high unemployment in some sectors and talent shortages in others will grow.

AZ. Why do you think the preference for cyclic work, taking time off between assignments, has not had as enthusiastic reception in the United States as it has in say France or Brazil? What do you think needs to be changed to increase its popularity here?  

TE. I suspect that the Boomers’ firm grip on corporate leadership in the US – and the size of this generation relative to the Xers who follow – has strongly influenced our work patterns.  Boomers have been conditioned to go “all out” – as hard and as intensively as possible.  Cyclic work, at least during their career shaping years, has not had great appeal for US Boomers.  And, because they are generally “the boss,” others have not felt comfortable taking advantage of cyclic work policies even when they exist.  As Gen Xers move into leadership roles, I expect to see a much greater acceptance of cyclic work in the U.S. 

I’m not sure why France and Brazil have managed to break through earlier.  Certainly attitudes toward work are different in these countries from the US Boomer approach.  France, in particular, has tended to have more of a “work to live” approach for many decades, which I suspect makes the country, as a whole, more open to various cyclic arrangements.

AZ. In what ways do you anticipate the baby boomers will be able to diffuse long standing attitudes about age discrimination? Can you provide several current examples of how these attitudes are being diffused?

TE. Oh, yes.  I think Boomers have always believed that every stage at life THEY reach is a wonderful stage – I have no doubt that they will make being 60 and 70 and even 80 very “cool,” too.  As an example, look at the number of Boomers who are posing in swim suits on the covers of magazines or otherwise doing things that formerly would have been the province of the young.

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