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Sloan Center News

When Are You (Too) Old? And What Can You Do About It ?

27 August 2009—According to a 2009 Pew survey, respondents ages 18 to 29 consider the average person becomes old at age 60. “Middle-aged respondents put the threshold closer to 70, and respondents ages 65 and above say that the average person does not become old until turning 74." See Fig. 1.

Graph - 'At What Age Does the Average Person Become Old'

When asked whether respondents felt old, 69% of all adults 65 and older said they do not; with just 28% saying they do. Among those ages 65-74, only 21% said they feel old. “Feeling old is somewhat more common for those 75 and older: 35% say they feel old.” Even so, a solid majority (61%) in the 75+ age group don’t feel old.



Not only does your perception of who is “old” depend on your current age, it also depends on where you live. Not all societies see age or older adults in the same way. For this reason, different societies structure work in an different manners, with age being one factor used to determine who should, or should not, be employed.

Cultural orientations — value systems, social scripts, and accepted templates — structure age into regulations used to guide the pacing of lives and activity in the workforce. Yet, while laws and organizational policies may determine when individuals might be eligible to enter or exit the workforce, ultimately it is the culture that influences the embracing of these policies and the individual’s inclination to pace one’s working life in accordance with opportunity.


The differences in perception around what is old inevitably result in another conclusion – when someone is too old to work, or when people are expected to leave the workforce.

As described in the center’s recent Global Issue Brief “When is a Person Too Young or Too Old to Work?”, like adulthood and middle age, the ideal age to transition into retirement years is socially defined. We should remember that retirement, as a discrete life stage, did not exist prior to the industrial economies of 20th century. Presently the length of retirement and accompanying lifestyle changes are continually shifting to correspond with the values of current generations.

For example, for years now, Boomers have been redefining work – how one works up to traditional retirement age, transitions into retirement, continued engagement through retirement, encore careers, etc. These changes have ultimately affected cultural perceptions, in the U.S., of “old” age with respect to work.

An illustration of how cultural variations can affect the perception of “old age,” our analyses considered at what age, approximately, women and men were considered to reach old age across Europe. We also asked, what was the ideal age for a woman/man to retire permanently. (See Figures 2 and 3)

Figure 2: Mean Age At Which Women and Men Reach Old Age: Country Comparisons


Figure 3: Mean Age At Which It Is Ideal For Women and Men Retire: Country Comparisons

Our analyses show that European men, for example, are considered to reach old age, on average, one year later than women (67.5 and 66.6 respectively) (see Figure 3). Given that men have lower life expectancies than women, this relationship may seem surprising. This suggests that men reach old age at a faster pace than women.

But, age is a social status. If old age is associated with one becoming frail or incapable of work, it is understandable that men reach old age later – men have historically been considered stronger and more capable of working than women.

Figures 2 and 3 show that the thresholds for old age and expected retirement vary remarkably between societies. At the low extreme is Hungary, where women are perceived to become old at approximately 61 years of age, whereas in Denmark, the onset of old age occurs a full decade later at age 71 for both women and men.

assessment & action


National cultures shape the paces at which workers enter into the early career stage, established career stage, and the stage at which careers are exited. Different societies have different appetites for work, with some expecting work to occur through the majority of the adult life span, while other societies expect work to comprise a smaller proportion of a person’s life.

The irony of these perceptions is that while they are changing, these perceptions are not keeping pace with the economic needs of older adults. Today older workers may want to remain or re-enter the labor force – some because they’ve lost retirement income, some because they’ve lost a job.

While research from the Center’s Age & Generations Study has shown that, on average, older workers are more engaged in their work than younger workers, even through the current economic crisis, older adults continue to encounter persistent obstacles and stereotypes when attempting to re-enter the workforce.

what can you do at your age?


A (2007) report for AARP documented some of the changes in work experiences in the United States over the past 25 years (1971-2006).

Change in Job Demands, 1971-2006

  • General physical demands: decrease from 57% to 46%
  • Difficult working conditions: decrease from 32% to 25%
  • High cognitive ability: increase from 26% to 35%
  • Interpersonal skills: increase from 25% to 34%
  • Updating and using knowledge: increase from 11% to 18%
  • High stress: increase from 5% to 9%
  • Source: Johnson, Mermin, & Resseger, 2007


Trends such as these emphasize new challenges for older workers. New norms suggest that education has become a lifelong process (not ending in the late teens-mid-twenties) and that the lines between work and retirement are blurred because some people will move in and out of the labor force during their “employment years” and others will continue work during their “retirement years.”

If employers are increasingly articulating expectations for continuous learning, older workers are likely to encounter constrained opportunities if they are, or are perceive to be, hesitant to participate in training or find it difficult to learn new competencies and skills.

In addition, because new understandings of “careers” have emerged, older adults may need to adjust their perceptions of what constitutes a career path. If older workers entered the workforce during the 60s and 70s, it is possible that they anticipated devoting their work life to a single career. Today, employees are encouraged to manage their own careers, often incorporating periods of entering and exiting the workforce, as well as career changes.


To leverage older workers’ experience and to keep them engaged, employers can:

  1. Offer opportunities for skill use
    While employment may bring with it increased life satisfaction for those older workers who want to continue working, there are frequently mismatches between the kinds of work some older workers are seeking and what is available. Research has found that predictors of job satisfaction were intrinsic factors such as the opportunity for skill use and autonomy. The existence of fringe benefits also increased job satisfaction but was of lesser importance.

  2. Offer training and development opportunities
    Another issue for employers is the perception that older workers are not trainable, not interested in training and development opportunities, and a poor investment because of their impending exit from the workforce. Several studies – including the center’s CitiSales Study— indicate that older workers not only want training and development opportunities, but felt that they had been passed over for development and promotion opportunities, they were less engaged and less satisfied than workers who had such opportunities.

  3. Reinforce supervisor support
    As to new career paths for older workers, there is a question about the extent to which employers are equally supportive of these new career paths for workers of all ages. Some employers might be more skeptical of an older worker who also wants to experiment with a new career.

  4. Ensure flexible work options fit
    A final mismatch that deserves attention is the potential gap between what older workers say they want in terms of job quality and the types of work available to them. For example, a number of studies conducted in the United States have confirmed that older workers want access to flexibility at the workplace; however, the Sloan Center on Aging & Work found in its 2006 survey that only 22.4% of U.S. workplaces indicated that they had established flexible work options “to a great extent” at their workplaces. In addition, only 22.9% of U.S. workplace reported that their organizations offered at least 6 of the following flexible work options to their employees:
    • choose a work schedule that varies from the typical schedule at your worksite (e.g., the traditional 8 hour day such as 9-5, Monday-Friday),
    • request changes in starting and quitting times from time to time, 
    • request changes in starting and quitting times on a daily basis,
    • reduce their work hours and work on a part time basis while remaining in the same position or at the same pay level,
    • structure their jobs as a job share with another person where both receive proportional compensation and benefits,
    • compress their work week by working longer hours on fewer days for at least part of the year,
    • take sabbaticals or career breaks, that is take leaves, paid or unpaid, of six months or more and return to a comparable job,
    • take an extended leave for care giving or other personal or family responsibilities (e.g., parental or elder care giving responsibilities),
    • work part-year, work part (or all) of their regular workweek at home or some other off site location,
    • transfer to jobs with reduced pay and responsibilities if desired,
    • request changes in their work responsibilities so that the job is a better fit with their skills and interests,
    • phase into retirement by working reduced hours over a period of time prior to full retirement,
    • make choices about which shifts at work, and
    • have input into the decisions about the amount of paid or unpaid overtime hours they work.

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