The silver-collar economy

More companies are hiring people 65 and older because they believe they are reliable and productive, while the seniors themselves need – and want – to work. But is the trend squeezing out young people?

Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor
Rosa Finnegan works on a needle at Vita Needle in Needham, Mass. This is the cover story in the Sept. 3 edition of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Rosa Finnegan has plenty of similarities with other wage-earning Americans. She hitches rides in with a co-worker, likes to joke around with colleagues, and feels very grateful to have her job. At the end of the day, she's ready to sink into a cushy chair at home.

But Mrs. Finnegan is also a trailblazer. She offers striking proof that employment and productive activity need not end when the so-called retirement years arrive.

Let's put it this way: Where many people now nearing retirement can recall Sputnik, civil rights protests, or the pitching wizardry of Sandy Koufax, she mentions memories of gas-lit streets, the spread of telephones, and working at a rubber plant during World War II.

Having passed her 100th birthday this year, Finnegan is still working at a needle factory in this Boston suburb, helping to make and package the stainless-steel products in custom batches.

Yes, she walks a bit more slowly now than many of her co-workers. But Rosa, as they all call her, still has willing hands and a nimble mind. And she has no desire to leave her job.

"I'd rather be here than almost anywhere," she says. "You feel like you're still a worthwhile person, even though you're old – [you're] not sitting in a rocking chair."

What's notable is not just that she wants to keep working, but also that she's found an employer who values her presence. When Rosa notched her 100th birthday earlier this year, Fred Hartman, chief executive of the family-run business called Vita Needle Company, celebrated with a cake during a morning break time – and then let her keep right on working.

In fact, at a time when the manufacturing of many goods has shifted from the United States to overseas, Vita Needle has survived partly because it has welcomed older workers. The median age of its 48 employees is 73. These workers have proved to be both reliable and low cost. Staff turnover has decreased, and the company believes the older workers help turn out a better product, offsetting the lower-wage advantages that some overseas firms enjoy.

Vita Needle is an extreme example, but it's just one of many employers who in varying ways have been learning to value workers on the mature end of the spectrum.

The rise of the older worker is cast sometimes as a problematic feature of the current job climate: a "gray ceiling" in which the lingering of older employees leaves scant opportunity for younger workers to be hired, developed, and promoted. The challenge is genuine, as recent headlines about a "lost" generation of youth imply.

But take a larger and longer view, and the picture may be much more positive. There's the potential for ample demand for younger and older workers alike. Many seniors, for their part, are engaged in a righteous rebellion against artificial limits – against the notion that hitting 65 means one's contributions to society are largely in the rearview mirror.

The trend, while not new, is still in its early stages and promises to have long-term significance. Life spans have been expanding, and attitudes about how to live during the so-called golden years have been evolving toward less emphasis on leisure and more on usefulness.

It's also a story about the financial imperative facing individuals and nations, which is intertwined with the global economy's current aura of debt crisis. Fiscal pressures in nations like Japan, Italy, and the US are linked closely to the demographics of retirement, with a wave of age 60-plus people who will either have to support themselves or be supported by taxpayers.

The rise of the gray workforce shouldn't be exaggerated. The concept of retirement isn't being phased out entirely. But elderly people are increasingly taking on jobs, either in the form of part-time employment, seasonal work, or brief encore careers.

Combine that with the sheer size of the baby boom cohort, and the trend promises to alter the makeup of workplaces across the developed world over the next two decades. Already, in fact, the growing presence of older workers is one of the most notable facts of the current US job market.

Since January 2010, job seekers age 55 and up have accounted for 70 percent of all employment gains in the US. Viewed over the past decade, the pattern is even more stark. That older group has added some 10 million employees to its ranks, even as employment among other age groups has actually declined by more than 4 million.

Those statistics, by the way, shouldn't be interpreted to mean that older workers have found it easy in a tough economy. The reality is that only about 17 percent of seniors are employed, which is far lower than the 39 percent who say in surveys that they "need" to work in retirement, according to a report this spring by Wells Fargo.

What the statistics do show is an inexorable force. The rising share of seniors employed over the past decade, coupled with the number of boomers poised to hit retirement who want to keep working, means the number of older people in the workforce will continue to surge.

"It's staggering," says Kim Ruyle, a human resources consultant. For the next decade, he says, thousands of boomers every day will be hitting the 62 to 65 age frame that in the past has been accompanied by cake-and-speech farewells at the office.

Where are older people finding work? Just about everywhere, actually.

Across the country from Needham, Mass., amid the balmy breezes of San Diego, Scripps Health offers another case study in welcoming older workers. Scripps has been recognized many times as among the "Best Employers for Workers Over 50" – as ranked by AARP. And it's a major employer – 14,400 people in a network of local hospitals and clinics.

High demand for skilled professionals like nurses makes health care one of the key industries trying to hang onto older workers. Scripps is a leader in this trend. Its retirement rate for employees who hit 65 is half the national average.

One of those "silver collar" workers is Barbara Genzler, a registered nurse who manages the surgery department. She's 67 and has no plans to retire. With 43 years of nursing experience behind her, most of it at Scripps, Ms. Genzler says she loves the work. "That's why I'm still doing it," she says. Even though the job is physically demanding, Genzler says she doesn't tire easily and plans to work at the hospital until she's unable to physically. "I can easily see spending my 70s working here," she says. "There's a lot of longevity in our department."

In recent years, the AARP "Best Employers" list has also included manufacturing companies like John Deere, financial firms, universities, and a range of other employers. In more than a few cases, these firms report that half or more of their workers are over 50.

To some degree, older workers are found in virtually every occupation. A graying grocery bagger or orange-aproned Home Depot associate has become a common sight. But think about this: Among Americans over 65 there are 101,000 active farmers and ranchers, a similar number who drive buses or taxis, 25,000 musicians, 17,000 crossing guards, and more than 80,000 chief executives. Warren Buffett, you are not alone.

Many work as professionals, such as lawyers. But many more occupy low-paid positions, laboring as retail clerks or janitors (more than 100,000 in each of those fields, says the Urban Institute, citing US Census data).

The demand for older workers is global. If anything, the pressure on employers to welcome elderly workers appears greater in Japan and much of Europe than it is in the US. The reason is that, while the US has some population growth contributing to its labor force, those other advanced nations are plateauing or facing outright demographic decline because of low immigration and fertility rates. That translates into fewer working-age people to support each prospective retiree.

For now, Europe has a culture and policy climate that encourages retirement and discourages working past 65. But that appears to be changing. "We've seen a lot of countries in Europe, particularly Germany, starting to address these problems by raising the retirement age," says Richard Johnson, an expert on aging and retirement at the Urban Institute in Washington.

The Australian government, seeing what it perceived as a mismatch between older workers' value and employer demand, recently launched a program offering $1,000 bonuses for each worker over 50 that employers hire.

Amid pizza shops and hair salons near the town square of Needham, the entrance to the Vita Needle Company is almost invisible. It's a bit like the entrance to the railway Platform 9-3/4 in the fictional realm of Harry Potter. You'll probably see this door only if you're looking for it.

Yet there it is. Up a staircase, the little factory occupies a wooden-planked space that was once a dance hall. Where "factory" conjures up images of forklifts, assembly lines, or robotic machines, this is different: a modest-sized shop floor where people sit at workbenches, exchanging bits of casual conversation as they use hand-operated tools such as stamping machines, drills, and wire brushes.

Employees include former salesmen, postal workers, or waitresses (as Finnegan was) among them. Up the stairs come 10-foot-long boxes filled with thin steel tubing. Down the stairs go customized needles for industrial and medical uses.

"We make some of the finest needles in the world here," says Mr. Hartman, whose family founded the firm here in 1932.

For Vita Needle, the appeal of older workers is that they combine reliability with low maintenance and low costs. The older employees don't need a lot of supervision. They just come in and get the job done, sometimes setting their own schedule, like a 5 a.m. arrival.

Most of the shop-floor employees are part-time workers, not covered by the company's health-care benefits. That makes the senior demographic a good fit. (The older employees are eligible for Medicare, so they have health insurance even as the firm reduces a fast-rising cost of business.)

The needle factory blends collegiality with an industrious ethic on the part of workers. Workers like the social contact as much as anything, conversing as they pull lunch containers out of a fridge in the middle of the one-room workspace.

Finnegan says she might feel out of place if a workplace was dominated by young employees. The company's upward tilt in age is part of the banter.

"I don't want to fall," Finnegan says as she navigates an aisle. "There's too many old people around that would have to pick me up!"

Vita Needle's age profile isn't something that could be replicated everywhere. Some firms feature tasks that are too physically demanding for older workers. But the basic rationale for hiring senior workers – high quality work at relatively low cost – spans many industries.

Often older workers accept lower pay in return for jobs that are less demanding. (The needle plant emphasizes precision and quality control, but most of the jobs aren't highly skilled.)

Employers have also come to appreciate older workers for their dedication and performance. Sure, there are negative perceptions, too. Jackie James, director of research at Boston College's Sloan Center on Aging & Work, says some employers view older workers as less flexible and less interested in learning new skills. But her group's surveys find that people with silver hair and empty nests win over employers in prominent ways.

"Older workers are perceived as being reliable and having a very good work ethic, [and] more engaged in the work than the younger workers are," says Ms. James.

Mature workers often provide firms with a ready answer for particular needs, such as mentoring or taking on short-term projects. "Smart employers are targeting the mature workforce," says Melanie Holmes, a vice president at the staffing firm ManpowerGroup in Milwaukee. They offer the experience that today's productivity-focused companies are eager to have, she explains.

At the same time, Ms. Holmes says age discrimination against mature workers also lingers. In some cases, she notes, companies believe they waste money when they invest in training an older person, even though evidence suggests that young hires won't necessarily stay on the job any longer.

Perceptions remain complex, with some observers seeing exploitation where others see bosses like Vita Needle's Hartman as promoters of a healthier society.

Hartman has reaped benefits from his workers but also has tailored his operations with their interests and employability in mind. In a new book centered on Vita Needle, Caitrin Lynch, a sociologist at Olin College in Needham, describes it this way: Sometimes the workers may quip, and partly grouse, that they are "making money for Fred." At the same time, "it is due to Fred's business acumen, but also to his good will and social conscience, that they have jobs in the first place."

Howard Ring is one who's glad to work at the needle plant. "When you get to be older, it's very hard to get a job," notes Mr. Ring, now 77, who says he works to cover his expenses.

After a career in mechanical engineering ended with a layoff more than a decade ago, he says it was a "stroke of luck" that landed him his current job. He happened to visit Vita Needle's shop one day, saw a milling machine like one that he had at home, and asked if they were looking to hire anyone.

That was about six years ago. "I don't see any imminent retirement in my future at all," he says.

The rise of senior workers is part of a larger story of economic transformation. The advancement of human civilization has been enabled by various revolutions: in agriculture, metallurgy (think Bronze Age), and industrialization, to name a few.

Now, even as technology remains a driver of economic change, ManpowerGroup CEO Jeff Joerres argues that the world is in the "human age." It is one in which victory goes to organizations that best manage talent.

Companies basically want to attract the best workers (whatever their age), help them maximize productivity, and keep them happy. Efforts to tap the skills and dedication of well-seasoned workers are part of the process.

At Scripps Health in San Diego, this means offering a phased retirement program that allows employees 55 and older to gradually work less but remain on the payroll, and maintain their benefits, for as long as they want to and are able.

"We want them here," says Vic Buzachero, senior vice president of human resources for Scripps. "The more senior worker has a well-rounded knowledge base in terms of how to care for patients."

In one recent survey, the Society for Human Resource Management polled professionals in the field and found some 72 percent saying the loss of talent due to older workers retiring or departing is a current or potential problem.

So far, though, the response by employers has been mixed, with many not making older workers much of a priority, even as others cater to them in creative ways.

Some companies have made cubicles easier for mature workers to navigate, with enhanced lighting or larger keys for typing. AARP credited one of its "Best Employer" winners, First Horizon bank in Tennessee, with offering older workers something as simple as parking spaces close to the building.

One perk that appeals to older and younger alike is a flexible work schedule. This can take various forms, from adjusting start times to offering compressed workweeks, telecommuting, or job sharing.

In Des Moines, Iowa, Diana Heisner is one who appreciates something less than the 9-to-5 grind. She officially retired early in 2010 from her work as an administrative assistant at Principal Financial Group, an insurance and financial services firm.

But soon she was back at work, helping out through a program the firm developed called "Happy Returns." The idea is to encourage company retirees to come back into part-time service at the firm, whose headquarters sprawls across four blocks of downtown Des Moines.

For her part, Ms. Heisner sets aside about six weeks a year to fill in for other administrative assistants on maternity or sick leave. If she works more than that, it could cut into her Social Security income. She calls Happy Returns a win-win for retirees and the firm.

"We know the company. We know the systems. And in my case I still know a lot of the people," she says before settling into a cubicle that offers air-conditioned refuge from a searing Great Plains summer.

Heisner likes to gab with old friends about Iowa State University sports, and to earn extra income that she can use at a mall or the odd yard sale.

Some companies, including L.L. Bean, the big Maine outdoor-goods retailer, find older workers a helpful source of seasonal labor. When the company girds for its holiday season rush of mail orders for everything from backwoods jackets to backpacks for preschoolers, it comes at a time of year when many retirees wouldn't mind stepping in for a stint of work.

Carolyn Beem, a company spokeswoman, says the older workers bring a strong customer-service ethic that often rubs off on the new hires who sit alongside them. Unlike Scripps, which posts openings partly on websites targeting mature workers (such as, L.L. Bean doesn't actively target the older population in its recruiting.

The bottom line is that em-ployers are forming increasingly close bonds with older workers, and those workers make up a growing share of the labor force. Don't expect those changes to slow down anytime soon.

Where financial experts used to talk about seniors being supported by a "three-legged stool" – Social Security, savings, and perhaps an employer pension – work is now an additional leg, says James at Boston College.

And from New England to the Pacific shores, many people are following Rosa Finnegan's path of finding fulfillment in part through staying employed.

One of the oldest employees at Scripps Health, Kenneth Curzon, is about to turn 90 in November. The cheery, slightly stooped Mr. Curzon manages parking operations full time, as he has done since 1990.

"It gives me a lot of satisfaction coming here each day, knowing I'm doing something other than sitting in a corner dreaming about things that happened years ago," says Curzon. "I have a lot of friends here."

Back at Vita Needle, longtime worker Bill Ferson can relate to that thought. As someone who lives on his own just down the road, he credits the job with keeping him alive mentally and moving physically. The results show in his spry wit.

"I'm 39 years old," he tells a visitor. This results in a raised-eyebrow pause, before Mr. Ferson explains that reversing the order of those digits would be the accurate way to put it. Then he's ready to turn back to the swaging machine he operates, putting out a new batch for his needle-factory team.

• Steve Dinnen in Des Moines, Iowa, and Eilene Zimmerman in San Diego contributed to this report.

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