To help the young, we need to keep older people working

03/24/2014 11:44 AM

03/24/2014 9:01 PM

Here’s a counterintuitive way the older generations can help the young:

Keep working and don’t retire so early. Because for perhaps the first time in history, the over-60 population is growing much faster than younger groups.

As Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Michael W. Hodin, executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, we need to build an economic growth model for an aging society.

The whole world, they contend, will have to grapple with the economic problems posed by humanity’s getting older. If we don’t better tap the economic potential of older workers, the younger generations will have to pay more and more taxes to support the old.

The burden of partly funding Social Security — which partly subsidizes the retired life — and subsidized medical care for ever-living-longer older folks will eventually become too heavy.

Young people won’t have as much money as previous generations to further their educations, buy houses and cars, and fund business startups. They’ll put off having children. In a downward spiral, prosperity will decline.

It won’t be enough just to urge people to work longer. In their op-ed, “America needs to rethink ‘retirement,’ ” Eberstadt and Hodin argue government and company policies stacked against older workers need to be changed.

Though three-fourths of Americans say they’ll continue working after retirement, The New York Times reports, just 18.9 percent of people 65 and older actually stay in the work force.

Eberstadt and Hodin, for starters, call for emphasizing a measure of unemployment that better accounts for older adults. The government’s most-reported jobless rate measures only those actively working or seeking to work. But those in their 60s and 70s should also now be considered eligible for work.

Eberstadt and Hodin propose that we pay more attention to the overall “employment ratio,’’ the proportion of all men and women over the age of 20 holding jobs, while also breaking out a separate measure for Americans over 55.

In fact, Eberstadt and Hodin say, the work rate for older Americans has indeed been rising for 20 years. For instance, the 18.9 percent figure from The Times is up from 12 percent over that time. They call the increase “a rare heartening fact about the U.S. workforce these days.” But it also shows the pressure from the elderly to keep working. So the point would be to design government and workplace policies to help drive that employment ratio even higher over the years.

Companies could get tax credits to invest in training and education for older workers. And older workers could get incentives to go back to school or get other training. Pensions should be portable. And though Eberstadt and Hodin don’t mention this, health insurance should no longer be tied to employers. The high cost of health care for older workers is a hiring disincentive.

We should also encourage more “silver entrepreneurs.” Eberstadt and Hodin note that the Kauffman Foundation estimates almost half of all entrepreneurs in America are over 45.

Finally, corporations will need to be more accepting of older workers, in large part simply to take advantage of experienced talent. They can also strive to make workplaces more “age friendly.” Eberstadt and Hodin call attention to a BMW plant in Bavaria that in consultations with older workers is installing softer floors and adjustable workstations, and providing orthopedic footware.

So what about the so-called “gray ceiling” — the clogging of the lanes of advancement for younger workers? Or the notion that older workers are actually stealing jobs? Eberstadt and Hodin say those objections are mistaken, and also arose when women began entering the work force in large numbers. But women have made tremendous economic contributions.

Of course, older workers have to make their own decisions about staying on the job longer based on their needs, dreams, health and savings. And, of course, there are many ways the retired can contribute to society through volunteer work.

But by remaining in the work force, they can keep contributing to the country’s overall economic prosperity instead of, in part, living off it. They will continue to pay taxes that, one can hope, will better allow government to accomplish needed functions. Like women entering the work force in the last 50 years, more older people working would similarly help supercharge the economy for all, the young included.

So if you’re about ready to step out of the rat race, maybe delay that a bit. Uncle Sam’s economy needs you!

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