Old-timers at work: older, and more of them

You don’t hear much about privatizing Social Security lately.  This morning’s Washington Post notes that retirement savings for Americans have lost $2 trillion in the past 15 months (roughly a 20% decline).

Yes, it’s likely the market will stagger back eventually, but if you’re looking at the desire or the need to live on your investments within the next 10 years, the route has just gotten a lot steeper.  More so, since the AARP reports that 20% of baby boomers stopped making any contribution to their retirement plans in the past year.

They needed the money.

A report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (PDF) says that the proportion of workers age 55 and older will grow by nearly 47% by 2016 (five times the rate for the work force as a whole).  In fact, by 2016 this group will make up 22.7% of the work force (versus 16.8% in 2006 and 11.9% in 1996).

The same report predicts that by 2016, nearly 30% of all people aged 65-74 will still be working, and 10.5% of those 75 and older.

I see a lot of opportunity and a lot of challenge in this (and not just because of my own age bracket).  On the one hand:

  • More people can work productively thanks to organizations thinking beyond the 8:30 – 5:30, here’s you cubicle model.
  • Technology shortens distance, reduces (some) drudgery, and provides a scaffold from which a seasoned person can more effectively wield his experience and harness his personalized networks.
  • Many people  in the baby-boomer cohort don’t see their life past 65 as one of puttering, early-bird dinners, and naps.  They’re energized by being involved.

More unsettling, though: many people now 55 or older have long careers in endangered sectors like manufacturing, with work experience that may be hard to transfer elsewhere.  Given our pastiche of a health care system in the U.S., many feel unable to switch jobs, let alone industries, for fear of losing insurance coverage.

Even those in white-collar work are often basic users of technology: they send email, they go to web sites, they transact business online. But the further past your 50th birthday you are (not you, reading this — you’re an exception), the less likely you are to use RSS, let alone participate in career-related virtual networks.

Finally, although we’d like to ignore it, many of us will not have the physical ability to work past age 70.

Eight years from now, not everyone’s going to be self-employed.  Not everyone’s going to be a consultant.  Not everyone will be as original an entrepreneur as the person in North Carolina who erected the sign in the photo.

From here for the next ten years, and maybe longer, the percentage of the workforce over age 60 will be larger than at any time in our history — and will increase each year.

As for the post-boomers: at the end of that time period, you’ll be 10 years closer to 60 yourselves.