Thursday, December 16, 2010

Boomer Women may Want to Work Longer: But will they be Allowed?

Boomer women, faced with lesser time in the workforce are increasingly looking at the option of working longer. The question is: will their employer see this as beneficial? And if they do, how far are they willing to go to permit this extended work career?

We know two things in this post or almost post-recession era we are currently in: One, older workers are returning to work or not leaving the workforce at all and two, younger workers who traditionally made up the bulk of the workforce, are being crowded out by this newer pool of older workers. Delaying retirement due to economic concerns that have stymied our financial well-being has been news for quite some time. But what if the new face of the workforce is slightly wrinkled and framed in grey?

According to a study conducted by and authored by Richard W. Johnson, Senior Fellow at The Urban Institute: "As the U.S. population ages and the number of Americans reaching traditional retirement ages increases, employers may need to attract and retain more older workers, many of whom are highly experienced, knowledgeable, and skilled." Basing the study on well-known assumptions, Mr. Johnson explores the shift in the workplace to accomodate the older worker who is increasingly choosing to hang on to their employment longer.

Among those assumptions is a longer life. As the older population reaches retirement age, they are finding the ability to continue working a possibility in large part because the work these folks tend to do is less physically demanding that many jobs were just a decade ago. While financial concerns are most likely to enter into the newsworthy conversations, the study seems to suggest that this trend is centered more on women than men.

The result is increased complications both for the company, the worker and the benefits they might or should be receiving at that age. The result is an experiment unlike any conducted prior to this where the lines blur between what is full-time work and what is full-time retirement.

Phased retirement, the new buzzword in this process involves reduced hours and responsibilities that include some perks normally reserved for women and men in the workplace who temporarily leave because of families. Among those phased perks are "flexible work arrangements, including part-time employment, flexible schedules, telework, contract work, and job sharing."

For the employer, the fringe benefits often accessible to the older workforce, such as traditional pensions could open the door to age discrimination. And this could hurt women more than men. Even as women have made great strides over the last several decades in pay, benefits and workplace populations, it is this group that is most likely to continue, or want to continue working beyond the traditional age of 65. Men, despite the reports of longer and healthier lives, choose to retire more now than when the jobs they engaged in were more physically demanding and strenuous.

Because the focus of this report is on the effects various policies and practices surrounding this transitional time of a workers life, Mr. Johnson points out some of the incentives and disincentives for working or not. Social Security has been gradually pushing back the retirement age and will probably continue to do so in the coming years. Defined benefit plans or pensions further complicate this trend by penalizing the annuitized payment should the worker continue to be employed.

The shift over the last three decades to defined contribution plans (401(k)s, 403(b)s) are much more accommodating to this segment of the workforce that wants to work longer. They can continue to contribute to a DC plan long after the traditional pension retirement age has been reached, adding the potential for greater lifetime incomes in the process. Because of these types of plans, workers reaching retirement age are more likely to work at least two-three years longer than they may have previously anticipated.

The study also revealed that if the employer provides health benefits for early retirees. of which according to a 2009 study conducted by the Kaiser Foundation only 29% of the employers do, that person is more likely to retire. Take them away or not provide these benefits and the worker will stay on the job longer.

Because Social Security benefits are calculated on a 35 year work history, one that favors men who have never had any interruption in their work history, this group is more likely to take their leave from the workforce. For women, each additional year worked eliminates a zero earnings year that may have come due to family leave because of children or the need to take care of aging parents.

The question facing employers is whether to retain these workers. In most instances, the older worker is at the top of the pay scale and poses a greater cost on the health benefits provided. Mr. Johnson notes: "Another study found that employers were less likely to call back older job applicants than otherwise identical younger applicants (Lahey, 2008). And it takes laid-off workers age 50 and older much longer than younger workers to become reemployed, even though older unemployed workers appear to search just as intensively as their younger counterparts (Johnson and Mommaerts, 2010)." Even if the desire to work longer is there, the opportunities may be limited.

Employers have acknowledged that the pool of potential retirees in the coming years will have a negative impact on the skill level of their employees. Yet few have done anything to address this shortfall of talent and skill. "For example, in the Cornell survey only 26 percent of employers allowing phased retirement would provide the same health benefits to workers after they reduced their hours. About two-fifths of employers allowing phased retirement in the Cornell survey, but only 9 percent of employers in the Ernst & Young survey, would allow in-service pension benefits."

The problem will need to be addressed by Congress at some point. Women Boomers face the greatest challenge in the coming years as they attempt to make up earnings shortfalls and look to adjust their schedules to a more flexible arrangement.

Employers will also need to address the issue as well. they may say that the talent looking to retire is worth retaining. But their current policies don't suggest they are doing much in the way of providing incentives. They may say they desire the older workforce. In practice, they have yet to make substantive moves to permit this choice.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and a fellow Boomer.

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