The Aging Work Force: Brains Over Brawn

Aug. 12, 2008
Baby boomers looking for jobs may want to dust off their diplomas rather than their treadmills, suggests a new report from the Urban Institute.

The study, “Will Employers Want Aging Boomers?” considered how changes in the nature of work, different occupations, the characteristics of older workers and overall labor force growth might affect future job prospects for older Americans.

Authors Gordon B.T. Mermin, Richard W. Johnson and Eric J. Toder examined the current demand for older workers – especially the 77 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 – and explored how this demand may change over the next decade.

A Growing Need

The occupations that already employ above-average shares of workers age 55 and older rely on an educated workforce and are expected to grow at least 20 percent by 2016, double the 10 percent rate forecast for the national labor force.

Most of the fastest-growing occupations that already employ above-average shares of workers age 55 and older rely on an educated workforce, such as personal financial advisors, veterinarians, social and community service managers, surveyors, environmental scientists and geoscientists, registered nurses and instructional coordinators. The list also includes postsecondary teachers, archivists and curators, social workers, management analysts, pharmacists, counselors, and business operation specialists.

The fastest-growing area for senior workers is personal and home care aides. Other categories that depend less on academic credentials include ushers, animal trainers, locksmiths and brokerage clerks.

Older workers can be found in broad occupational groups in similar proportions as other workers, except they are more likely to be managers or in sales, while adults younger than 65 are more likely to have blue-collar jobs. A third of workers age 65 or older are in management and professional positions, 17 percent are in service jobs, a similar share have blue-collar jobs, 15 percent work in sales, 14 percent have office and administrative support jobs, and less than 1 percent work in farming, fishing or forestry. The retail sales industry currently employs the most older Americans.

Physical Demands

Jobs generally are less physically demanding now than they were in 1971 and less likely to entail difficult working conditions, a trend that bodes well for older workers. However, nonphysical demands have increased, and some of the most popular jobs among older workers – such as janitors and cleaners, home health and home care aides, maids and housekeepers and laborers – pay low wages and involve physically demanding tasks.

The proportion of jobs with high physical demands declined from 8.0 to 6.6 percent between 1971 and 2007. Those with difficult working conditions – involving outdoor work, high noise levels or exposure to contaminants – fell too, from 39.8 to 29.8 percent. The share requiring high cognitive ability (reasoning, written expression and decision making) grew from 26.5 to 36 percent. The proportion involving high stress and dealing with unpleasant people doubled, from 4.4 to 9.2 percent and from 4.1 to 8.2 percent, respectively.

These trends are likely to continue, the researchers forecast. Only 18 percent of all fast-growing jobs have any physical demands, compared with 52 percent of other occupations. High cognitive ability is very or extremely important for 57 percent of workers in fast-growing occupations, compared with 30 percent for workers in other occupations.

“Many workers approaching traditional retirement ages say they want to keep working, but it’s not yet clear how many will be able to keep their jobs or find new ones,” said Johnson, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute. “Employers seem to value older workers for their maturity, experience and work ethic, but worry about out-of-date skills and the high cost of employing them.”

To make older workers more appealing to employers, Mermin, Johnson, and Toder recommend that Medicare be made the primary payer for workers with employer-provided health insurance. They also suggest addressing legal uncertainties surrounding formal phased retirement programs, allowing distribution of defined-benefit pensions at age 59 1/2 while people are still employed, targeting government training and employment services better to older workers, and increasing employer awareness of the value of older workers.

The study, available at, uses data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment and Training Administration and Census Bureau, with research funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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