More women than ever are saying no to retirement well past the age of 65
Elizabeth F. Fideler’s book Women Still at Work—Professionals Over Sixty and On the Job was published this summer by Rowman & Littlefield. Her next research project looks at older men in the workforce. Dr. Fideler invites men who are 60 and older and still working to participate; please e-mail her to request her two-page survey.
Despite the toll that unemployment has taken on the labor force in this country, growth continues in a surprising sector: women between the ages of 65 and 74 and women who are 75 and older.
These are now the two fastest-growing cohorts of American workers. By 2018, forecasters expect the pace of growth for these two groups to increase by 89.8 percent and 61.4 percent, respectively, far outstripping the rate of increase for all younger groups of working women. What’s more, the percentage of women who are 65 and older in the workforce is increasing nearly twice as fast as the percentage of men in the same age group.
One reason for the shift in distribution by age and gender in the American workplace is, of course, that both women and men are healthier and living longer. But longevity doesn’t explain the shift fully, nor does the arrival of baby boomers in the ranks of seniors.
For the first time, women in all age groups are the majority across American workplaces. This is truly a success story in which older women workers are finally getting their due. When these women came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, their occupational options were severely limited. The women who have persevered deserve to be celebrated—not only for their staying power and accomplishments but also for navigating astutely during the extended economic downturn and for defying stereotypes about aging.
Decidedly active, well-educated women predominate in the professions: education, business, health care, and social services, as well as the arts, libraries, ministry, law, and government. To understand this group better, I conducted a national survey and in-depth interviews of professional, retirement-age women. I wanted to know why these women keep working when many, presumably, are financially comfortable enough to quit. I also wanted to know how they manage multiple demands on their time and energy and how they balance work with family.
Typically, they say they enjoy their jobs and feel productive. Many do report financial or familial inducements to stay in the workforce: paying off a mortgage, building back lost retirement savings, maintaining health benefits, helping a family member who was laid off, sending a grandchild to college, or supporting an elderly parent.
For most professional women, though, the wolf is not at the door. Some admit that they fear boredom and an atrophied intellect if they stop working. Nearly all say they simply love what they do. One intrepid 80-year-old caterer, cooking instructor, and author told her daughter, “I will retire when they stop calling me!”
Bottom line, the professional women I surveyed and interviewed are fortunate in having a choice between working and retiring. It’s a choice that less educated women earning low wages generally do not have; many have to keep working just to stay afloat.
Whether women who are 65 and older work because they want to or because they must, they are a force to be reckoned with. Their presence on the job should not be a surprise to anybody anymore—least of all employers and planners.
Elizabeth F. Fideler, EdD
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College