The New Meaning of Retirement. ERIC Digest.
by Stein, David
The 21st century may be known as the era of lifelong learning and lifelong
working (Longworth 1999). Retirement, the end stage of a linear working
life, may be replaced with a learning, working, leisure, working, learning
life cycle. In a cyclical living and working model, participating in the
work force never ceases but is interspersed with periods of leisure and
learning. Full-time work may be interspersed with periods of flexible working
arrangements such as part-time, seasonal, occasional, and project work
(Brown 1998; Dychtwald 1990). The traditional notion of retirement may
be replaced with lifelong working--in various positions and in varying
amounts of time throughout adult life. In the future a declining birthrate
may result in a shortage of skilled and knowledgeable employees (Dychtwald
1990), making the notion of retirement for older workers a serious drain
on organizational productivity. Increasing demands for work force productivity,
a projected shortage of skilled and experienced workers, and older adults
who are healthier and living longer than previous generations are powerful
societal forces shaping future employment practices (Imel 1996).
Two decades ago, Sheppard and Rix (1977) forecast the changing nature
of the workplace and suggested that keeping older persons in the work force
would make sound economic and social policy sense. Yet Ginzberg( 1983)
raised a most challenging question by asking to what extent is our society
ready to make work for an increasing number of older adults who choose
to remain in the workplace while also providing opportunities for young
adults: if employment is not a possibility, then what is our obligation
to provide adequate financial support? Morrison (1990) noted that social
policies were needed to encourage and support employers retaining older
workers. Today the fastest growing segment of the population is the older
adult. Still, the decision to remain or leave the workplace is a function
of organizational policy (Eastman 1993). This Digest examines this trend
and looks at ways adult educators can create and sustain working environments
supportive of the needs and capabilities of older workers.
NEW PATTERNS OF WORK FOR OLDER ADULTS
The trend toward longer periods of employment is beginning to become
evident. Forced retirements and early retirement incentives have contributed
to the decline of expertise in the workplace. Inflation, increasing health
care costs, and inadequate pensions are propelling older adults to remain
in or reenter the work force past the traditional retirement age (Doeringer
1990; Glied and Stabile 1999; Herz 1995). Stein, Rocco, and Goldenetz (2000)
proposed a model that identifies older workers as remaining in, retiring
from, or returning to the workplace. These patterns require employers to
provide a variety of learning programs to accommodate these older workers.
In this model, retirement as a permanent separation from work becomes just
a temporary choice.
Retirement as permanent separation from the workplace is being replaced
with the idea of bridge employment (Weckerle and Shultz 1999). Bridging
is a form of partial retirement in which an older worker alternates periods
of disengagement from the workplace with periods of temporary, part-time,
occasional, or self-employed work. The key aspect of bridging is that it
is work in other than a career job. A career job is a position occupied
by a worker for a substantial portion of the working life in a single setting
or with a single employer (Doeringer 1990). Among workers age 60, more
than 50 percent retire from a career job but only one in nine actually
disengages from the workplace (Ruhm 1990; Weckerle and Shultz 1999). Bridging
allows older workers to "practice" retirement, to fill labor market shortages,
or to try a variety of occupational positions after an initial period of
Bridging is sometimes described as a second career. The American Association
of Retired Persons received 36,000 responses to a working life survey,
covering 375 job titles from workers age 50 plus who had returned to the
workplace after an initial period of retirement (Bird 1994). The three
most frequently cited reasons for returning included having financial need,
liking to work, and keeping busy. However, closer examination of the data
revealed that "financial need" included money to help the children as well
as to meet basic needs. "Liking to work" included feeling successful, enjoying
the excitement of the workplace, and making a contribution. "Keeping busy"
included working with a spouse, staying healthy, or fulfilling a social
need. Reasons cited for remaining or returning to the workplace expressed
the social meaning of work. Ginzberg (1983) proposed that work provides
income, status, and personal achievement; structures time; and provides
opportunities for interpersonal relationships. In the study by Stein, Rocco,
and Goldenetz (2000), older workers remaining in or returning to the workplace
mentioned not planning wisely, the need to contribute, appreciation from
others, and the desire to create something as reasons for not retiring
from the workplace. Work is more than earning a living. It is a way to
To some extent older workers remain in the workplace because they are
healthier, cognitively able, and want to remain engaged. In a review of
older worker studies, Rix (1990) concluded that many aging workers continue
to work at peak efficiency and that there is usually much more variation
within age groups than among age groups. Shea (1991) summarized the studies
on older workers by pointing out that "age-related changes in physical
ability, cognitive performance, and personality have little effect on workers'
output except in the most physically demanding tasks" (p. 153). Farr, Tesluk,
and Klein (1998) found that there is no consistent relationship between
age and performance across settings. Among faculty in the sciences, age
had a slight negative relationship to publishing productivity (Levin and
Stephan 1989). Some studies have shown a stronger negative relationship
between age and work performance for nonprofessional and low-level clerical
jobs than for higher-level craft, service, and professional jobs (Avolio,
Waldman, and McDaniel 1990; Waldman and Avolio 1993).
With declining birthrates and an anticipated shortage of new entrants
to the work force, early retirement will become an issue for organizations
to explore in more detail. Organizations will need to assess the consequences
to profits and productivity of encouraging talented and wise elders to
exit the work force. As a society we need to recognize all of the costs
of supporting a nonworking population capable of productive work and living
healthier and longer lives.
Organizations need to rethink allocating opportunities to older workers
as well as changing the attitudes and expectations of managers and younger
employees toward an increasing number of older workers (Greller and Stroh
1995; Hassell and Perrewe 1995; Paul and Townsend 1993). There is a growing
interest among organizations to reengineer the work environment to account
for physiological changes due to aging (Kupritz 2000) and to reorganize
work schedules to account for seasonal or contingent labor pools composed
of older workers (Canter 1995). Few positions in our information society
remain static and do not require some type of education. Education and
job redesign are the means by which the older segment of the community
can enter, reenter, and advance in the workplace.
ADULT EDUCATION IMPLICATIONS
This inquiry suggests that older workers are situated in a dynamic pattern
of periods of active employment, disengagement from the workplace, and
reentry into the same or a new career. Older workers exhibit different
work patterns at different stages. The workplace becomes a dynamic space
for older workers rather than a unidirectional journey leading to retirement.
An adult education perspective for the third stage of working life--beyond
the traditional retirement age--will view the older worker as an active
agent negotiating various roles within the workspace. The roles, depending
on life circumstances, might include the decision to remain in, retire
from, or return to periods of part-time, full-time, or part-season work.
These work choice patterns will challenge adult educators to develop training,
career development, and organizational development strategies appropriate
to a third stage of working life (Jessup and Greenberg 1989).
An aging and changing work force may cause us to reexamine and revalue
the meaning and necessity of work for older workers. An aging work force
might influence workplace cultures and values in ways that change our notions
of the meaning and necessity of work. A workplace that blends training
opportunities, flexible employment patterns, and policies supportive of
the life needs of an aging work force may become a workplace that embraces
older workers as capable, productive, and knowledgeable lifelong workers.
Older workers will need organizational and social supports to encourage
the extension of the work life (Bailey and Hansson 1995).
An investigation of the meaning of work in the lives of older workers
is fertile ground for adult educators. Adult educators might explore learning-teaching
approaches that are more effective for providing career guidance to older
adults making transitions to part-time work, returning from periods of
retirement, or contemplating leaving the work force. Flexible schedules,
job sharing, reduced loads, and seasonal employment may be redefined in
the context of a changing and aging work force. Notions of full-time, part-time
and career work--usually applied to workers aged 18-65--may need to be
reexamined in light of employees working beyond the eighth decade of life.
Older workers represent a rich source of experience, accumulated knowledge,
and wisdom. The quality and sensitivity of an institution's program for
counseling, training, retraining, and preparing older workers for life
and career transition might be the means by which organizations recruit
and retain valued and productive workers.
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