The American workforce is getting older, forcing new discussions on how to get these workers educated in skills needed for high-paying jobs.
Older workers, aged 55 and over, represent the fastest growing labor group in the US. By 2024, nearly 1 in 4 people in the labor force will be age 55 or over, according to the US Department of Labor. The increased workforce participation from older workers results from both increased lifespans, and financial constraints: nearly half of households headed by someone 55 or older has nothing saved for retirement.
Currently, 3 million older adults are looking for full-time employment, Emily Allen, senior vice president for programs at AARP, told Business Insider. Many individuals seeking full-time might be part-time, or in low-wage jobs with limited growth opportunities.
In light of the aging workforce, experts say getting an education at age 22 will not last if Americans work into their 80s. While programs to give employees new skills remain few and far between, providing older adults with continuous learning could provide them with better opportunities for jobs in the future.
“For older workers, the thought of going back to school or continual learning wasn’t in the mindset,” Allen said in an interview. “It had been that very traditional mindset of school, graduate, work, retire. We had to switch mindsets on the part of older workers to say it’s about continual learning.”
Yet activists argue the biggest barrier to entry for older workers isn’t a lack of skills: it’s ageism. “The pickings are slim, the competition is fierce,” Alice Fisher, founder and executive director of the Radical Age Movement, told Business Insider. “The last time I participated in a job fair specifically targeted for older adults, attendees were happy: at least someone is trying to do something about this.”
“But they did not walk away with jobs.”
The current state of retraining programs for older workers
Corporate reskilling programs are uncommon, but offer an effective way to retrain loyal employees for high-skilled jobs.
Since firing employees and replacing them with workers who have different skills cost companies billions in lost productivity, severance packages, and recruiting, reskilling current employees offers companies a cost effective solution to bridge the skills gap. Yet while 54% of executives in banking say the skills gap will influence workplace strategy, only 3% say they plan to increase investment in reskilling over the next three years, according to consulting firm Accenture.
Government retraining programs are also sparse. Currently, reskilling programs offered by the state government do not offer age-specific training, according to Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, director of upskilling policy at the National Skills Coalition. At the federal level, one program exists to retrain older workers, but only seniors who make below the poverty line qualify.
AARP offers a Back to Work 50+ program not only to guide older adults through job training programs at community colleges, but to help demystify the current job application process. Back to Work 50+ even helps participants navigate LinkedIn and write a résumé, Allen said. Since launching in 2013, the Back to Work program has provided job resources to 55,000 people.
While seemingly a good way to bridge the skills gap for the underemployed or unemployed, non-corporate worker upskilling programs do not always lead to better job prospects — particularly for older workers. The federal government created the Trade Adjustment Assistance program in the 1960s to provide job training programs to workers who lost jobs due to overseas competition. An assessment of the program found many older participants in the job training program earned less than they did at their old jobs.
The other issue with skills retraining is that people train in skills corporations say they need, but companies do not guarantee them work, or may change the skills they need in a year or two, said author and professor Ellen Ruppel Shell. Most of the fastest growing jobs by the year 2026 do not require education beyond high school— suggesting the most in-demand work right now does not need training.
In her book “The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change,” Shell studied an advanced manufacturing class geared toward retraining former automobile industry employees in their 40s. Shell found that while the employees left the program highly skilled, the jobs offered to them did not pay enough to support their families.
Shell recognizes some older employees succeed in finding second careers, but those stories tend to be “overblown.”
“Certainly some people are able and willing to retrain,” Shell told Business Insider. “With elderly folks, those opportunities are there. They can certainly work at a cashier at McDonald’s or do other things in that nature. But those higher wage opportunities that we say are always available, there’s not really a lot of evidence there.”
The fight against ageism
Even for highly skilled senior workers, activists say ageism can be a barrier to entry for high-paying jobs.
Most of the growth in the older workforce comes from educated seniors. The share of senior workers with college degrees increased from 25% to 53% since 1985, according to a survey from investment management platform United Income. While the survey reported the real income of retirement-age workers increased due to more college educated adults working longer, a separate report from the Economic Policy Research found unstable or low-wage jobs make up half of growth for older workers.
Interest in low-wage jobs like “server” and “laundry attendant” increased for retirement age job seekers over the past four years on the website Jobcase, nicknamed “LinkedIn for blue-collar workers.” Conversely, interest in “manager” jobs among people under 65 increased by 65% since 2015; for retirement age job seekers, interest in manager jobs declined by 30%.
An investigation by ProPublica last year found more than half of US workers are pushed out of longtime jobs before they choose to retire. Seniors who want to work yet cannot find the opportunity to do so are often broke: the share of US workers who have suffered financially damaging, employer driven job separation after 50 increased from 10% in 1998 to 30% as of 2016, ProPublica found.
“Most older adults really have come to face that they are not going to make the same salaries,” Fisher said. “People who lose their jobs in their 50s are really in big trouble. It is very hard to get another job.”
Many companies pushing to hire older workers come from low-wage industries looking for low-skill labor. McDonald’s, for instance, recently partnered with AARP to get older workers more job opportunities. The fastest-growing sectors for older workers pay so little, that many employees claim food stamps, according to a report from The New School.
“It’s very nice that McDonald’s is considering hiring older workers, but the implication that we should be grateful to have minimum wage jobs,” said Ashton Applewhite, activist and author of “This Chair Rocks: The Manifesto Against Ageism.”
Allen recognizes older adults struggle to earn high salaries, and said the foundation also works with employers to help them understand the value older adults bring to companies, and build internal training programs inclusive of age diversity.
“I think [we’re] helping older workers adapt to the fact that it’s not going to be a traditional job perhaps that will make you financially secure,” Allen said. “Increasingly there’s going to be more and more different ways in which you generate income.”
Still, activists say more needs to be done to address the way ageism keeps older workers out of high-skilled jobs: “We are not going to achieve a workforce that is age blind until we speak up and out about structural discrimination against older people,” Applewhite said. “So much of it is how to fluff your résumé so you don’t look so ancient. That’s not helpful.”