Aging workforce calls for new norms for career, retirement

Guests attend a St. Louis NORC dancing and entertainment event featuring the Original Knights of Swing Band in September. The St. Louis NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) is designed for those age 65 or older within a 3-mile radius of the Jewish Community Center in the Creve Coeur area. Photo courtesy JBeauvias Photography

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

In the new movie “The Intern,” Robert De Niro plays Ben, a 70-year-old retiree who gets hired as a “senior intern” at an online fashion company. Not only does Ben bring wisdom, insight and maturity to the job, he also provides mentorship to his 30-something boss and fellow co-workers.

If the conceit sounds preposterous, think again. By 2022, people 50 and older are expected to make up 35 percent of the U.S. labor force, compared to 25 percent in 2002, according to AARP. And a study published last month in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease finds that people in their 60s and 70s who work are likely to have better health than those who call it quits.

Researchers in that study looked at 85,000 adults age 65 and older (the mean age was 75.) In general, people who kept working were nearly three times as likely to report being in good health compared to those who had retired.

“It’s pretty well-established that active, meaningful engagement is good for people as they age,” says Nancy Morrow-Howell, the Bettie Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor of Social Policy at Washington University’s Brown School (of social work). An international leader in gerontology, Morrow-Howell also is the director of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging at Washington U.

She explains the concept of working longer is nuanced, noting that a college professor such as herself can more easily continue her career into her 70s than, for example, a coal miner, whose job is more physically demanding. But what she and other experts argue is that society needs to realize — and value — the positive social and economic contributions older adults can make in a variety of ways, including working, volunteering and caregiving. 


“We have focused on age as deficits —depression, dementia, disability — and the whole world reinforces that with the research we do. You can’t believe how many young people think most older adults are in nursing homes,” she says. “We have to change the narrative, and we need to do so through examples. Is 80 the new 60? No, 80 is the new 80. We’ve got to think of the possibilities of what it means to be 80 today.”


Boomers fuels longevity revolution

If any demographic is likely to unearth the possibilities, it’s the baby boomer generation. Born between 1946 and 1964, boomers began turning 65 in 2011 at a rate of between 10,000 and 11,000 a day. By 2050, it is estimated that more than 80 million Americans will be 65 and older. 

“Baby boomers are going to change the face of retirement. Part of this is sheer numbers and part is that we can’t retire. We just haven’t saved enough money,” says Morrow-Howell, who at 63 is a boomer herself. “But truly the vision of stepping out of work totally at one time isn’t going to cut it for us financially or socially when we have 20 to 30 years ahead after ‘formal’ retirement.”

She notes that 65 as the model age for retirement began in the late 1800s in Europe, when few people were expected to live to 60. Today, life expectancy at birth in the United States is 79 years; by 2050, it will be 88. 

“Working has become so much more of a source of meaning in our lives,” says Morrow-Howell. “We are not wanting to give that up. Money and meaning are the two things work brings, and boomers are going to be more in need of both.

“But we don’t want to keep doing it the same. People are trying to figure out how to change the way we work. They want to work differently — have more flexibility, more balance. They want to find something different and at the same time, meaningful.”


Building a ‘second act’

Championing the paradigm of “productive aging” is a national movement called Encore ( Begun in the late 1990s by Marc Freedman, a member of the Brown School’s National Council, its mission is to harness the skills and experience of older adults by helping them find new work that improves communities. 

“The human talent pool that could be available is astounding,” says Marci Alboher, vice president of marketing and communications at, which is based in San Francisco. “And it’s not just for this generation (of boomers and seniors). We’re creating a model that young people can age into.”

According to Alboher, about 9 million Americans have already moved into encore careers, in education or the environment, or health or human resources.Among its various initiatives, has a fellowship program for those wanting to transition from the private sector to the nonprofit world. St. Louisan Karen Sanders was awarded one of these fellowships last year, and helped create programs at Washington U. called “Next Move,” which combine elements of work, service and social impact to help participants build an encore career. 

“We see a tremendous opportunity for society that is no less impactful in its scope than women entering the workforce,” says Sanders. “The best thing that could happen to us as a nation is if this enormous body of older adults with time on their hands could start mentoring, teaching and leading community development efforts. After all, there are no real health and welfare benefits to staying home and ‘riding the recliner.’”

Former Jewish Federation of St. Louis CEO Barry Rosenberg is one of the Brown School professors involved in Next Move workshops and programs. He explains that many people contemplating encore careers want to move from the for-profit arena to public service jobs, which may or may not be paid. 

“My session helps them to understand the unique characteristics of nonprofits and how they differ from for-profits as well as the kind of knowledge and skills they need to acquire to make this transition,” he says.

At 65, Rosenberg, who has a master’s degree in social work, is now in the thick of his encore career, having left Federation in 2012 after 19 years at the helm (and 37 years in Jewish communal service). Although he had a teaching affiliation at Washington U. during his years at Federation, “my involvement at Brown ramped up as my involvement at Federation wound down.” 

“What I thought would be part-time has evolved into much more than full-time but I am having a ball,” says Rosenberg. “I am a highly compulsive person. I don’t think I would be happy or fulfilled or comfortable not being heavily engaged in things. I’m happy to work and work makes me happy. For me, this has been a perfect transition.”


Beyond the workplace

Working, volunteering and caregiving are not the only avenues for older adults to grow older productively; many who cannot work, or prefer not to, still want to be engaged with, and connected to, others, and want to remain in their homes. Spiritual, leisure, recreational and educational activities are also important outlets in helping older persons lead meaningful lives.

But physical and mental limitations, transportation and general isolation can prevent older adults from participating in the lifestyle they desire. The good news is that it appears the St. Louis region, and the local Jewish community, are addressing these issues in important ways.

“The one thing us baby boomers have going for us is that we’re a gigantic group and we will not be satisfied with the old kinds of nursing homes, work policies, even fashion,” says Brian Carpenter, associate professor of psychology at Washington U., who specializes in aging, and is part of the team at the Friedman Center. “Boomers will demand things be different and propel change because they won’t settle for anything less.”

In July 2013, St. Louis County became part of the World Health Organization’s network of age-friendly communities. After two years of assessment and planning, the Age-Friendly Community (AFC) Action Plan was adopted by the St. Louis County Council on June 9 and submitted to AARP on June 10. The plan includes more than 70 recommendations to be undertaken by St. Louis County departments over the next three years that focuses on four major areas:

• Health and well being;

• Social and civic engagement;

• Mobility and accessibility;

• Safe and attractive neighborhoods.

In addition, to help improve the health, nutrition and quality of life of adults 60 and older in the region, St. Louis County and city, along with St. Charles County, are strongly considering a ballot initiative for 2016, which would collect five cents for every $100 of property assessed to supplement public and private funding for senior services. The combined revenue would be roughly $20 million.

The region already has two Natural Occurring Retirement Communities; St. Louis NORC, for those 65 and older living within a 3-mile radius of the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur and STL Village, for adults 50-plus living in neighborhoods within the borders of Page Boulevard, Vandeventer Boulevard, Clayton Avenue and Big Bend Boulevard. For a fee ($35 annually for an individual at NORC; $600 at Village) both organizations offer services and support to help older adults live independently and stay connected to the community.

In the St. Louis Jewish community, dozens of support services from adult day care to meal delivery to housing options to ElderLink St. Louis, a coordinated referral service, are available for seniors; however, many of those services are geared to the frail and elderly. Sonia Dobinsky, vice president of community development and human resources at Federation, admits that when her organization outlined a strategic plan five years ago, it failed to properly address the needs of aging boomers.

“That was a mistake,” she says. “However, we are looking at all kinds of possibilities now. We brought back the Melton (School of Adult Jewish) learning for that demographic, we are talking with universities and meeting with others to develop programs (for boomers,), including the Millstone Institute. We’re exploring the idea of ‘senior interns’ – what would that mean to our community?

“I don’t have a specific initiative now but call me in three months.”