Samantha Greenfield & Kim Lee De Angelis, PhD

Samantha Greenfield & Kim Lee De Angelis, PhD

In 2006, the Sloan Center on Aging & Work published a brief titled “How Old Are Today’s Older Workers?” by Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, center director, and Michael A. Smyer, former co-director. The brief offers a perspective that employers today would be wise to keep in mind.

In it, the researchers discussed the difficulty of pinning down what employers mean when they refer to “older workers,” “mature workers,” “senior workers,” and “experienced workers.” Here’s the problem. In times past, Dr. Pitt-Catsouphes and Dr. Smyer pointed out, a “mid-career worker seemed to become an older worker once they started to plan for retirement.” What’s more, the “status of being an older worker signaled the end of a career.” Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics showing many adults choosing to work past the age at which they could claim retirement benefits indicated to Dr. Pitt-Catsouphes and Dr. Smyer that a more dynamic view of age than proximity to eligibility for benefits was in order. They argued:

  Today, many adults are working later into their 60s and 70s, and many make a gradual transition from full-time employment to full-time retirement by having a bridge job. It is no longer clear when adults move from a mid-career status into an older worker status.

The results of a 2009 survey conducted by offer further evidence that old ideas about “who is old” have lost their usefulness. One in five employers (21 percent) reported that as their employees approach retirement age, they ask to continue working. Most employers in that situation (86 percent) said they were happy to oblige, and for the following reasons:

  • Employers want to hold on to [older workers’] intellectual capital (65 percent)
  • Mature workers can help train and mentor others (61 percent)
  • Mature workers know how to weather a tough economy (42 percent)
  • Employers have more time to transition responsibilities (36 percent)

In a recent blog, Jacquelyn B. James, Ph.D., the Sloan Center’s research director, stated:

  Today’s older adults have much to offer in terms of talent, energy and social contributions. Human development continues throughout the life span. Finding ways to reach this potential will have positive outcomes for both older adults and for society as a whole.

The new reality she describes is a challenge for managers and human resources administrators at a time when many workers nearing and passing retirement age are not, in fact, retiring, but instead are continuing to work and add value to their companies.

With this demographic and cultural shift, the words employers and employees use to describe age and the old ideas that underlie the words must change. The 2006 Sloan Center brief quoted Victor Marshall, a scholar at the Institute on Aging at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as follows:

  Conceptions of “who is old” vary greatly across cultures, across historical periods, and by industrial sector. We found in the IT sector that workers are considered old if they have children. Ballet dancers and professional athletes may be considered old in their twenties or thirties, airline pilots in their fifties, and Supreme Court Justices in their eighties. It is important to investigate how employers and workers informally designate workers as young or old, and whether such designations are associated with the attribution of positive characteristics (e.g. wisdom and responsibility) or negative characteristics (e.g. unable to learn new technology).

So, who are you calling old? A more perceptive and precise vocabulary is the gateway to new responses that can energize talent management and retention initiatives now and in the future.


Kim Lee DeAngelis, Ph.D., is a research associate at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. She focuses on current case studies and workshops related to the center’s research. Previously, she was director of human resources at Talbots, Inc. She earned her doctorate in human and organizational systems at Fielding Graduate University, where she conducted research on Generation X in the workplace.

Samantha Greenfield is an employer engagement specialist at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work, connecting employers around the world with the center’s research projects. She has worked in the human resources department of two large Boston law firms. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Elon University, in North Carolina.


Samantha Greenfield
Employer Engagement Specialist
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Boston College

Phone: 617.552.9117

Kim Lee De Angelis, PhD
Research Associate
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Boston College
Phone: 617.552.2890