The stereotypes abound: that Americans 55 and older are over the hill, on the shelf, and their headlights are getting dim. When the Social Security Act of 1935 established the retirement age of 65, average longevity was 62. In 2012, 77 years later, despite the reality that longevity for men is 78 and 80 for women, a pervasive negative sentiment remains about older workers and aging in America.
Our national focus is on hiding the wrinkles and shedding the years, thus perpetuating ageism thinking and encouraging people to conceal their age. We shouldn’t focus on the problems of an aging population, without understanding and taking advantage of the benefits and opportunities.
Myths and stereotypes about aging are prevalent, despite a massive amount of contrary data. Here are some of the disconnects that create dilemmas:
1. America’s focus is on marketing to younger people, while older people have the money. According to the Harvard Business Review, people 55 and older own or control more than 70% of the total accumulated private wealth in America and account for 50% of total discretionary spending.
2. Companies spend much more on training and development of younger workers than on older workers, despite the reality that investment in the older workers would have a better pay-off because younger workers 20-34 have more than three times the turnover of workers 55-64.
3. Employee benefit programs, particularly defined pension plans, encourage people to retire earlier, even though many would like to continue working longer and are able to add substantial value. In fact, laws and public policies often discourage or provide a disincentive for companies to continue using workers 55+ and for people 55+ to continue working, instead of encouraging both groups to do so.
4. National economic growth and our standard of living may be reduced if workers 55+ are not provided with opportunities to continue working (i.e., they will be drawing from instead of contributing to the economy), yet there is no strong recognition of the need to do so.
5. Research shows that millions of Americans want to continue working after retirement (80% of the Baby Boomers indicate that they intend to do so), the largest percentage on a part-time basis, but most companies aren’t providing phased retirement and other flexible workplace options that will help them retain and recruit workers 55+ who can continue adding value.
6. Medicare and Social Security are financially unsustainable, yet we only apply band-aids. The retirement age must be changed to reflect that people are living longer, in better health and able to continue working for substantially more time. Helping workers over 55 to remain productively engaged would ease Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid problems and would contribute to the country’s economic growth.
The reality is that Americans are living substantially longer lives and in better health, but our thinking about aging and retirement remains largely unchanged. We are doing our country a disservice when we view people in terms of chronological age rather than considering their overall capabilities and their ability to add value. It’s time to change this paradigm.
In support of this paradigm shift, the Center for Productive Longevity (CPL), an organization serving as the bridge between people 55 and older and opportunities that enable them to continue in productive activities, has initiated a national competition, the Later-Life Story Contest, for people 50 and older. The competition has two categories: Entrepreneur Success Stories and Inspirational Later-Life Stories. A panel of three independent judges will select one winner from each category who will receive $1,000 and a specially designed trophy. CPL will post the best stories on its website (ctrpl.org) under “Success Stories.” The contest deadline is August 31, and winners will be announced on October 1, 2012.
To submit a story, visit http://www.ctrpl.org/laterlifestorycontest and complete a submission form. Entrants must be 55 and older, have a compelling story to share, and be willing to have it posted on the CPL website for viewing and for possible publication. Stories may also be sent to James Hooks at firstname.lastname@example.org.