COVID-19 and the Future of Aging: What Older Workers Need



COVID-19 and the Future of Aging: What Older Workers Need

Catherine Collinson
Catherine Collinson
CEO & President, Transamerica Institute; Executive Director, Aegon Center for Longevity and Retirement

A noted researcher on the pandemic’s effects on working boomers and Gen Xers

This article is the fourteenth 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.

What is the experience of older workers during the pandemic compared with younger generations?

The data we’ve seen on this topic is surprising. Looking across generations, older workers are significantly less likely to have been impacted than their younger counterparts. 

In late October, our nonprofit division, the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies®, surveyed workers who are employed and/or who were laid off or furloughed as a result of the pandemic. While 41 percent of boomers and 44 percent of Generation X had experienced one or more negative impacts ranging from reduced hours to job loss, 60 percent of millennials reported a negative change. 

Do emerging data and new survey findings from recent months surface any unexpected findings and potential silver linings for older workers during this otherwise challenging time?

Boomers and Gen Xers are strikingly resilient compared with younger generations: 57 percent of boomers and 50 percent of Generation X indicate they are maintaining a positive outlook on life, compared with 37 percent of millennials.

Boomers and Generation X are also less likely than millennials to be struggling financially. While 52 percent of millennials indicate they often feel anxious and depressed, 39 percent of Generation X and 26 percent of boomers do. Moreover, 42 percent of millennials feel isolated and lonely, much higher than the 27 percent of Generation X and 22 percent of boomers.

These findings illustrate the tremendous opportunity for employers to support their employees by fostering a multigenerational workforce. In addition to their experience and expertise, older workers can bring positivity, perspective, a calming influence, and cohesiveness to the workplace in these tumultuous times.

What are the potential long-term impacts of COVID-19 on older workers and their careers? 

Older workers still bear the challenge of detrimental stereotypes. We know from past recessions that older workers who lose their jobs have an extremely difficult time finding employment after the economy recovers. Some become discouraged, give up, and retire early—before they are financially ready—and risk outliving their savings. Amid the pandemic, these headwinds of ageism may be exacerbated with the widespread messaging about the health-related vulnerabilities of older populations. 

But the story does not have to end this way.

Societally, it is time to rewrite this story. Unlike past recessions, technology has enabled new ways to continue working and the flexibility to be semi-retired while working, a possible best of both worlds.

LinkedIn has revolutionized networking and enables professionals to connect and make a positive impression. It can be especially powerful for older workers to showcase their achievements and talents—and demonstrate they are tech-savvy and connected. 

At the same time, employers are becoming increasingly receptive to implementing age-friendly business practices that welcome and recognize the value of experienced employees. 

Although there is much more work to be done, AARP’s Living, Learning, and Earning Longer global initiative with the World Economic Forum and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development illustrates the progress being made. 

I see another indication that times are changing, with the Colorado Above-Fifty Employment Strategies project, which brings together collaborators including Transamerica Institute, University of Iowa, NextFifty Initiative, and other local agencies and nonprofits.

For older workers who are looking to become entrepreneurs or earn supplemental income, a myriad of online services are available to facilitate the process, including providers like LegalZoom, which can help with the legwork in starting a business, SquareSpace, which makes it easy to build a website with pre-built templates, and Upwork, which connects employers with freelancers. 

Another silver lining from the pandemic is the availability of online educational content, letting older adults brush up on their job skills and stay abreast of the latest developments in their industries. 

With almost everything going virtual, access to continuing education programs and conferences is no longer constrained by geography and travel time. And some of it is free, ranging from classes offered through your favorite public library to the 2020 Aspen Ideas Festival.

How do we write this new story in which older workers continue earning income and saving for retirement for as long as they want and need? 

Societally and individually, we must be firm in our resolve to do so. Policymakers, industry, academics, nonprofits, employers, and people of all ages play an important role. We must end systemic ageism and raise awareness about what is at stake. 

We must also provide older workers with the vote of confidence, resources, and know-how to be successful. 

At the same time, we need to preserve safety nets, such as Social Security and Medicare, to help ensure that those older Americans who are unable to work can retire with dignity.

Published January 13, 2021