The challenges and opportunities for them due to the pandemic
This article is the tenth in a weekly joint series on “The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Future of Aging” from the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging and Next Avenue. The articles are Q and As with thought leaders in fields ranging from health care to retirement planning to work to intergenerational relationships.
Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging: Does the pandemic reveal new opportunities for older workers? And if so, what needs to be done to realize these opportunities?
Art Bilger: On the surface, the pandemic is creating more challenges than opportunities for older workers, particularly low-income workers.
Higher-income workers are often in knowledge-based positions, as opposed to labor-based. And as we have seen, these knowledge-based jobs more readily adapt to the remote working that has kept many people employed since March.
Many older low-income workers were employed in physical jobs that required them to go to a place of business. With so many employers having to close their doors, older workers in that category were often laid off, either temporarily or permanently.
My organization, WorkingNation, recently spoke with Chris Garland at the Center for Workforce Inclusion, an organization that assists older, low-income job seekers. She points to a Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast that by the year 2028, 25 percent of the workforce will be workers over the age of 55. People are living longer and have to—or want to—work longer.
Some say that older adults can’t adapt and learn. We know otherwise. There’s no time limit on our ability to learn. The evidence suggests that older workers can use new technologies as well as anyone of any age. But they bring much more than that to the workplace.
They serve as mentors and advisers for their younger counterparts. Their wisdom and experience can be a competitive advantage for employers. They are a vital part of the economy and will be more important in the years ahead. The pandemic has presented daunting challenges, but we must overcome them for the good of older workers and people of all ages.
With concerning workforce trends such as structural unemployment on the horizon pre-COVID-19, is the pandemic accelerating or disrupting previous projections?
Technology is always changing the way we work and the skills we need to do for our jobs. Many employers quickly adapted to the pandemic-driven changes in the economy, learning to conduct business remotely and continuing to serve customers. Those seeking to resume in-person operations are likely to do so with fewer workers who will be required to have more skills. So, the pandemic has accelerated workplace disruption, and American workers are concerned.
In our first WorkingNation American Workers Survey, 63 percent of respondents said they believe that technology is changing the way we do our jobs but don’t believe they have the skills needed to keep up with those changes. Forty percent say obsolete skills or the lack of aligned skills are cause for significant concern.
Workers are seeking guidance, but 56 percent say they are not even aware of how, or where, to find programs to acquire the most in-demand skills. And, alarmingly, 66 percent say their employers have never offered them training.
I believe that employers, educators, civic leaders, and nonprofits have to work together to signal the most important skills needed across high-demand fields and then create programs to help workers achieve those skills. If we don’t do that, the issue won’t go away.
Workers will struggle to find good jobs and the economic recovery will suffer as a consequence. This will be especially true for older workers who, as statistics show, find it takes longer to get a new job and often take jobs that pay them significantly less than what they earned before.
What are the potential long-term impacts of COVID-19 on older workers and their careers?
COVID-19 poses a risk to older adults, both economically and physically.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 95 percent of deaths from COVID-19 occurred in people over 50. While the health crisis continues, older workers may not be inclined to look for work in order to lower their risk of contracting the virus.
And, if the economic recovery stalls further, those who have been out of work the longest might simply choose to retire early out of frustration or to avoid placing themselves in danger. At the same time, some employers might be reluctant to hire older workers because of perceived health risks.
An acceleration in early retirements is not unprecedented.
We saw this in the Great Recession. In one study, 52 percent of retirees over 55 said they left the workforce between 2008 and 2014 because they lost their jobs. There’s already evidence of this trend in the nine months since the current unemployment crisis began.
We can and must bring older adults back into the workforce—39 percent of people over 55 are looking for work or working—and they can play a vital role in keeping the economic recovery moving.