Why Retaining Older Women in the Workforce Will Help the U.S. Economy

Older women workers

In this opinion piece, researchers Amy Lui Abel and Diane Lim of The Conference Board explain why demographic and economic trends provide an opportunity for older women to expand their role in the labor market. Several female-dominated occupations — especially in health care services — face shortages that will only grow. But given the unique needs and circumstances of older women, realizing their full economic contribution will hinge on employers providing them with more flexible work environments. If companies do this, the greying of America could become an opportunity rather than a threat.

Over the next decade America’s tight labor market will continue making headlines. The fundamental reason stems from retiring Baby Boomers outpacing the number of younger workers entering the workforce.

To help the country’s labor supply better meet demand, keeping the present workforce engaged in work would go a long way. Retaining every cohort matters. But U.S. businesses should put particular focus on retaining older women. Now and even more so in the future, increasing their participation would create substantial economic opportunity. To realize that opportunity, more companies should consider making flexible work arrangements a staple of their employee recruitment and engagement strategy.

Of all the population groups participating in America’s workforce, women 55 and older represent the single fastest growing age-gender segment. That group alone will account for more than a third – nearly 3.6 million – of all additional workers entering the labor force over the next decade (2016-2026).

But securing robust participation from older women depends on employers offering employment conditions that reflect their circumstances. As an example, for some older women maximizing income is not the primary goal of working in their later years. Many have high levels of education. And with their childcare responsibilities reduced now that their children have grown, they are ready to take on or continue holding a job – but not just any job. For them, a work arrangement that offers flexibility with an engaging environment can represent a more attractive alternative than outright retirement.

“Women 55 and older represent the single fastest growing age-gender segment.”

To be sure, not all older women have the benefit of work being optional. While flexible work cannot by itself solve their challenges, it can provide them with better options for balancing life obligations and desires against financial necessity. Whereas women on average head into retirement with nearly $40,000 in savings, men head in with $60,000. Moreover, many older women face the dual responsibility of tending to both their elderly parents and their children. Elder care providers are most commonly women aged 55 to 64, and nearly half of all elder caregivers also have children under 18 at home.

Sandwich Generation

The term “Sandwich Generation” applies to those caught between the two cohorts. With women having children later in life, and the elderly living longer than they ever have, this generation is growing – and with that growth come the accompanying struggles around money and time.

At our own organization, the manager and employee work to craft a case-by-case flexible work arrangement. Each employee has a laptop equipped with video-conferencing capabilities. Meetings often occur with half the group in a conference room and the other half present virtually. While many come into the office every day due to business demands or personal preferences, others spend at least some of the week working from home. Reasons include but are not limited to parenting and caregiving – two obligations that, in some capacity, either one or both of us women must meet.

For organizations looking to improve or begin flexible work, HR should provide criteria to managers for setting boundaries around these arrangements. And they should consider training managers in creating and assessing arrangements that work for both parties, and in managing remote and flexible team members.

These work scenarios require different ways to approach employee engagement, performance assessments, and work assignments. It should be noted that creating a flexible yet engaging place for older workers does not necessarily come at a high price tag. Productivity remains strong so long as leaders implement these arrangements in a sound way. While HR can take the lead in suggesting different scenarios, they should avoid crafting one-size-fits-all policies.

What Employers Should Do

Looking to the future, some more factors support the need for employers to do all they can to attract and retain older women. In sectors that impact individuals across generations – beginning with childcare and education, to health care and assisted living – employers would benefit from their increased participation.

“Creating a flexible yet engaging place for older workers does not necessarily come at a high price tag.”

Take the latter two: health care and assisted living. These jobs fall under the broader service sector, which will produce nine-in-ten net new jobs in the U.S. economy over the next decade. At the same time older workers comprise an increasing share of the workforce, older people overall will need health care services more than any other kind of service. Women already hold the vast majority of jobs in these high-shortage health occupations. For example, they account for approximately 90% of registered nurses, nurse practitioners, and occupational therapists, and about 70% of physician assistants. Their immense role underscores the need for employers to offer arrangements that will continue to attract and retain experienced health care workers — a workforce group that older women will increasingly comprise.

Moreover, men look unlikely to make a substantial contribution in plugging the labor supply gap. Over the past four decades, the overall labor force participation of men has declined steadily, due in part to the economy’s shift toward producing more services and fewer goods. Many of the male-heavy manufacturing jobs have been declining in relative numbers for decades and will continue to be more susceptible to offshoring and/or automation.

And finally, there is the impact of immigration – or lack thereof. Companies could take a gamble by hoping for an infusion of foreign workers to help fill out the labor supply. But current immigration policy (even the “employment-based” part) is not designed to respond to the evolving needs of the economy. Moreover, immigration reform remains at a standstill and looks likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

All signs and hopes point to women. And while older women stand to uniquely benefit from flexible work arrangements, so will all workers who want a healthy work-life balance for their families. As the nature of work evolves, our economy will better adapt to the aging of the U.S. population. The greying of America thus becomes less of a challenge and more of an opportunity to make the most of the country’s full economic capacity and greatest natural resource: human capital.

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