Work for Older Workers

Retirement experts are now saying that many workers will not be able to retire until they are about 80 years old. Yet relatively few in the labor force work full-speed past 60 or 62 years old in the modernized sectors of the economy. The increasing rapidity of work makes it harder for older workers to keep up than when these Baby Boomers entered the labor force. There are a few self-directed people such as Kirk Kerkorian and Warren Buffett that still work near their peak in their late 70s or 80s, but these exceptional people are not representative. One cannot base policy assumptions on an increased ability to work at an older age. I knew one man from my law practice who was still operating earth-moving machinery for a full day past 75 years of age, but he too was highly unusual.

In my entire discussion I am assuming that the intelligence is intact. Experience in many cases will enable an older person with better judgment to devise a more complete solution than a younger person is able to do — if the older person is given enough time to think a problem through thoroughly. Judgment and experience count. Some older people remain intelligent into their 80s and beyond and their mental capabilities decline slowly if at all. But speed is lost with age even in the best of cases. Meeting a deadline becomes harder, as does switching rapidly from one problem to another.

There is a yawning gap in the perceived economic need for older people to extend their working careers and the type of work that is available in the conventional labor force. What are the characteristics of work for which older workers are suited? One common problem is an increase in chronic ailments that require regular medical treatment during business hours. So work for older people will need to have more schedule flexibility than most younger workers.

A second reason for the need for schedule flexibility is that many older people need a rest during the workday. Winston Churchill napped to extend his strength. Conventional work schedules do not allow this. So this is an argument for an older person being able to work from home and to be paid by the job instead of by the hour.

Wal-Mart has developed a different solution for older workers — to shorten the workweek and lighten the load in order to accommodate diminished strength and endurance. In exchange wage rates are probably lower. I am confident that Wal-Mart saves money by accommodating the needs of older workers for shorter stretches of regular work. Other retailers that can handle part-time schedules may also be a source of work for older workers.

A different approach is the prominent part that grand-parents used to play in raising children in Eastern Europe. In former times both mother and father had to work long hours to raise enough food or otherwise earn enough to survive. The natural progression for an older person no longer capable of the rigors of farm work with minimal machinery was to care for grand-children to free up the younger parents to work. In this way the older person could still make both a spiritual and an economic contribution to the family. A variation is the use of retired people to teach the subject matter in which they formerly worked. If we are in an economy where both parents must be available to work outside the home, some families may benefit from a return to the grand-parent approach as an alternative to expensive commercial day care. In cases where a grand-parent remains of sound mind and judgment, this might be superior to day care and also give a child one-on-one instruction. Some grand-parents may be able to make a major contribution to education even at home. If combined with coursework available over the Internet, this has the potential to lighten the load that school systems must carry.

If the experts are right, we will have to rethink work itself to take advantage of the judgment, skills and remaining stamina of older workers who are being pushed out of the conventional labor force. Even young innovators need age and experience. The hoary head is a crown of glory if it is found in the way of righteousness. Proverbs 16:31 The glory of young men is their strength; the glory of old men is their gray head. Proverbs 20:29.