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Outside the Box: A powerful way to keep retirees out of poverty is to tackle this workplace problem (and it has nothing to do with retirement accounts)

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A recent study by ProPublica and the Urban Institute found that as many as half of the 40 million working adults over age 50 will, at some point, be jettisoned from their jobs (fired outright) or forced to resign (jumping before they’re pushed).

And once pushed out, only 10% of these displaced older workers ever find replacement jobs with pay commensurate with the career jobs they left. That older guy or gal you see bagging groceries at Whole Foods is probably not there because he or she wants to be.

How bad is it?

Teresa Ghilarducci, a labor economist and nationally recognized expert on retirement security, estimates that “about 50% of workers over the age of 55 will be poor or near-poor adults when they reach 65.”

Let that number sink in – 50%. Soon we will all know someone who has landed here — a friend, a family member. Ourselves.

And don’t think of the retirement income crisis as just some pesky little Boomer problem. GenXers and Millennials are in lockstep right behind them. Like Boomers, many will face a future of uncertain work, no pension, a shortage of affordable housing and rising healthcare costs – and let’s not forget over $1.6 trillion in student-loan debt.

So maybe it’s time for a different approach.

Since 2012, Larry Fink, the chairman and CEO of BlackRock
BLK,
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the world’s largest investment management firm with assets under management of nearly $9 trillion, has sent an annual letter to business leaders about the most pressing issues facing society and the role of business in addressing them.

This year and last he spoke about the “growing retirement crisis” and workers worried about outliving their savings and called on companies to “embrace a greater responsibility to help workers navigate retirement, lending their capacity for innovation to solve this immense global challenge.”

I maintain that a big part of helping “workers navigate retirement” is addressing age bias in the workplace. Workplace age discrimination, now compounded by the health risks of COVID-19, is forcing millions of older Americans out of their jobs into early involuntary retirement – an involuntary retirement marked by poverty.

As the world’s most powerful investor, what BlackRock prioritizes reverberates in executive suites and boardrooms around the globe. In this era of extended healthy life expectancy, I would like to see BlackRock engage corporations directly about their plus-50 strategies and inquire about their progress investing in and leveraging talent across generations, especially measures to attract and retain older workers.

Last year, AARP interviewed some 6,000 employers from around the world and 83% said an age-diverse workforce was “key to the growth and long-term success of their companies.” But only 47% actually track age as a diversity factor. 

Collecting and analyzing the data is the first step in understanding workforce age demographics and identifying underlying issues.

This 47% is a place to stick a flag. These companies are among the ones that will set the standard and pioneer best practice for how to retain and reintegrate people over 50 into the workforce. Let’s recognize them, give them a bigger megaphone and learn from their experience.

In New York City, the Age Smart Employer Awards, an initiative of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center celebrate age-friendly companies. These awards are a good place to start and I’d like to see more municipalities adopt them. They normalize hiring older workers and go beyond pledges. Companies actually have to show how they’re walking their talk.

I have read President Biden’s plan for older Americans, and it is ambitious, taking on many of the biggest problems Boomer-age Americans face today, including reining in prescription drug costs, strengthening Medicare and the Affordable Care Act, preserving Social Security, and expanding and adding teeth to age-discrimination laws.

 A lot has changed since the Older Americans Act, the center piece of U.S. age policy, was enacted back in 1965 and just reauthorized through the government’s 2024 fiscal year. 

For example, the OAA provides employment opportunities and job training programs for low-income older adults through the Senior Community Service Program (SCSEP). But at current funding levels, SCSEP can only service about 1% of eligible individuals. Also, the profile of today’s SCSEP job seeker is not the same as it was 50-plus years ago, especially post the Great Recession.

In the SCSEP program where I consulted in 2017, some 40% of the participants had at least some college education. But SCSEP is limited to paying the minimum wage and few jobs offered advancement opportunities. Participants shared that they were grateful to be working but struggled to make ends meet, let alone save.

The economics of aging is forcing many older Americans to work beyond traditional retirement age. For SCSEP this means expanding its services to meet the needs of a broader cross-section of economically vulnerable older job seekers for higher skilled employment opportunities spanning more functions and sectors.  

But private-sector companies will need government incentives to up their participation in the SCSEP program — support for training and workplace modifications, wage offsets and other subsidies. Good-quality jobs could also come from the government through a carve-out for older job seekers in The American Jobs Act or other big federally funded jobs programs.

As a nation, we have achieved longevity by investing tens of billions of dollars in the diagnosis, management and treatment of disease. We have prolonged existence but have not been as successful investing in the physical and social infrastructure needed to support our health, economic independence, emotional well-being, and dignity as we age.

This is the work in front of us now. And we’re playing catch-up. Big time.

Also read: You’re likely to be out of a job in your 50s — 4 ways to prepare and minimize the pain

Elizabeth White began her career at the World Bank, then became a retail entrepreneur and is now an advocate for older adults facing uncertain work and financial insecurity and author of “55, Underemployed and Faking Normal”. Follow her on Twitter @55fakingnormal.

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