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Breaking the Age Barrier

Biden can move the needle on older adults in the workforce

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By Janine Vanderburg and Tony Tapia

Americans hired a 77-year-old for President by electing Joe Biden. With the age glass ceiling now broken, it’s time for us to recalibrate our thinking and policies about older adults and work.

We live in Colorado, where the 65+ population is the second fastest growing in the nation. Prior to COVID-19, one in four Coloradans aged 65+ was working (compared to one in five nationally), and labor force participation of those 55+ was 45.9 percent compared to 40 percent nationally. This is not surprising. Census data shows that the U.S.—like the rest of the world—is aging, a result of advances in science and public health and declining birth rates. Today, more people in the U.S. are over 60 than under 18, and this trend will continue. The good news is that intergenerational workplaces that include people of all ages, have been found to be more creative, better at problem-solving, and more productive and profitable. If we are going to Build Back Better, older Americans need to be part of the mix.

Current narratives about older people, which made their way into the 2020 presidential campaign, interfere with realizing the promise of intergenerational workplaces. These stereotypes are reflected in employment practices, e.g., denying older workers access to training under the mistaken belief that we are not willing to learn new things or that we won’t stay long. They are embedded in policies like defining “prime working age” as 25-54, as well as in court rulings that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) does not apply to hiring.

In Colorado, we have created a model for changing this dynamic so that our state can reap the benefit of intergenerational workplaces. Our approach can serve as a blueprint nationally and includes:

Advancing policy solutions: For the past five years, Colorado’s Strategic Action Planning Group on Aging (SAPGA) has developed recommendations to the Colorado governor and legislators on aging. One of the primary successes was the appointment of a senior advisor on aging in the Governor’s Office to advocate, coordinate and champion policies and legislation for older adults, including in the workplace. Nationally, the Biden administration needs to consider a cabinet level position on aging and intergenerational workplaces to advance policies for older adults and a five-generation workplace across the country.

Shifting perceptions and building coalitions: Changing the Narrative in Colorado is an initiative that reframes aging and older workers, refutes myths and stereotypes about older workers, and shares the business case for older workers and for intergenerational workplaces with employers, human resource managers and workforce development programs. We influence employers to consider a pool of older adult workers who were experienced, knowledgeable and available to work; 87% of those completing presentation evaluations said they were more likely to hire older adults as a result. While unemployment has dramatically risen as a result of COVID-19, in the long term, older adults need to be part of the employment in order to have a thriving economy, and for businesses to survive in light of demographic change.

Along with these recommendations, it is time to strengthen the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Currently, it is illegal to ask someone their age, but not their high school graduation date. The burden of proof to show that one has been discriminated against because of age is higher than discrimination based on race or gender. Legislation to strengthen the ADEA has been stalled in Congress. A Biden administration needs to remove the roadblocks in the Senate and get this passed.

Earlier this year, the Committee for Economic Development (CED) released a report recommending national policies to sustain economic vitality by retaining and hiring older adults over the next decade. A Biden administration needs to consider some of the CED recommendations including: “Expand and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit for adults without qualifying children in order to incentivize more people to enter the labor force and remain working, support older workers who wish to remain working, including through market-based health care reform that would eliminate the potential for health insurance cost disparities to motivate discrimination against older workers, piloting a modification of the Social Security retirement earnings test, and supporting flexible work arrangements.”

Through our work, we have moved beyond just informing people about ageism to building coalitions to change policies and practices. We have built a coalition of health care providers, policy think tanks, nonprofits, private employers and government leadership to develop state-level policy solutions to creating a better work environment for older adults in a multi-generational workplace.

Together, these kinds of approaches and policies can help create the environment for workforces and an economy in which people of all ages can thrive.

To be sure, not every older adult wants to, or can continue to, work past what has historically been considered “retirement age.” For them, we must ensure that we have retirement policies and supports in place. But for those of us who choose to — whether for meaning, purpose or paycheck— we can do more to ensure that private and public policies allow this option, for the benefit of older workers and the economy. We recognize that President-elect Biden faces many priorities, including immediately addressing the pandemic, climate change, racial injustice. Repairing and rebuilding the economy is among the top. Tapping into the wisdom and lived experience of older adults will be critical in this effort.

Now is the time for our oldest elected President to embrace this mantle.

Janine Vanderburg directs Changing the Narrative in Colorado. Tony Tapia chairs the Workforce Development Committee of Colorado’s Strategic Action Planning Group on Aging. Both are Encore Public Voices Fellows with The OpEd Project.

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