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‘What do we do with all that talent?’ Older workers and the new economy

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Did you catch the half-time show at the Super Bowl highlighting hip-hop artists Dr. Dre, Mary J Blige, and Snoop Dogg? The performance garnered high praise among critics and the audience (including me). Less remarked on is that Dr. Dre, Mary J Blige, and Snoop Dogg are in the second half of life—ages 57, 51, and 50, respectively.

Mid-life hip-hop artists are far from alone in exercising their creative energies in their 50s and older. The Whitney Museum in New York City recently had an exhibit documenting the remarkable career of Jasper Johns, an artist still active at age 91. Judy Collins, age 82, released on Feb. 25 her 29th album Spellbound, her first album containing all original songs.

Examples about older artists coming up with original material and continuing to practice their craft are easily multiplied once you start looking. Less appreciated is the economic message in their creative engagement: Prospects for strong economic growth are brighter than conventional perspectives hold with the aging of the population. The skill, knowledge, and experience of older artists highlight just how wrong is the popular stereotype that the typical 50-plus worker is well past their creative, productive, and learning peak.  

“This popular notion is what motivated me to write my book,” says Daniel Levitin, age 64, author of Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives. He’s also a professor emeritus of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal and a distinguished faculty fellow at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. “What we’re dealing with is another ‘ism’–ageism.”  

Look at it this way: There’s no question the U.S. population is aging with growing numbers of people entering the traditional retirement years. The Census Bureau predicts by 2034—a mere dozen years—for the first time in U.S. history there will be more Americans 65 years and older than 18 years and younger. What should be in doubt is the commonplace assumption that the demographics of an aging population will weigh on the economy’s vitality. The evidence is overwhelming that experienced workers—much like Dr. Dre, Jasper Johns, and Judy Collins–can be as creative, productive, and engaged as their younger peers on the job.

Read: I left my job at age 65 and don’t want to retire — what next?

The real challenge is to get employers to support and to hire older workers who want to stay employed. “What do we do with all that talent?” says Tony Luna, age 77, head of his eponymous creative consulting firm and adjunct professor at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. “It’s an opportunity that is waiting to be tapped into.”

Researchers have shown how cognitive processing speed declines with age, but other mental functions improve, such as language and speech. Most important for work and entrepreneurship is that the lessons of experience accumulate. Older adults can “connect the dots” by drawing on memories and tapping into the knowledge they’ve gained over the years. “So much of what we consider to be judgment and wisdom come from experience,” says Levitin. “That’s why the older workers are so good at solving problems.”

Read: Trying to fill jobs at your company? One of the 15 million retired workers between age 55 and 70 might be able to help

Associate professor Thomas Stapleford in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame sees that judgment and wisdom at play in the classroom. He helped design the “great books” series that is part of the core curriculum for Notre Dame’s Inspired Leadership Initiative. The Initiative helps up to 30 accomplished individuals at the end of their careers to think about what comes next by spending an academic year at Notre Dame. In classroom discussions with undergraduates, Stapleford says the fellows offer what Aristotle called “phronesis,” the practical wisdom that comes from experience.

Read: Once considered on the cusp of retirement, these older workers are taking a ‘gap year’ after successful careers

“They have their life experience, and they draw on it to enrich whatever you are reading,” he says. “It’s a different kind of knowledge—practical wisdom—only learned through experience and it can’t be formally taught.”

Luna echoes Stapleford in comments about a course he teaches on crafting a meaningful career at the ArtCenter. Among his students are those nearing retirement age and they’re looking for something that still brings in an income but better reflects their values. He encourages them to begin their search by first looking back on their work history, understanding their successes and failures, likes and dislikes. They connect the dots and eventually “they come up with clever, unique things that they never knew they could do before,” he says.

Too many employers believe older employees are past their peak and, therefore, reflexively close off options for using their creativity. Big mistake. Arthur Cropley, a scholar of creativity, runs through a list of research documenting the creativity of ordinary older adults. His conclusion? “Such findings suggest that the social convention of ceasing to work at about age 60, not the disappearance of the psychological potential for creativity, may be a major causal factor in reduced creativity at older ages,” he writes in the research paper CreativePerformances in Older Adults

Employers often steer away from investing in the skills of older employees since they’re stuck in their ways, right? Yet anyone who has tried to start a business knows how much new entrepreneurs need to learn. Learning new skills is also good for mental health, notes Levitin. A longtime music producer, he recently released an album of his own material, Sex and Math. “What would make me super-duper challenged would be to have people listen to music I had written and listen to me sing,” he says.  

Taken altogether, employer ageism is one factor behind the striking embrace of entrepreneurship by so many people in the second half of life. Starting a business is a creative enterprise. In 2020 nearly one-quarter of new entrepreneurs were ages 55 to 64, according to the KauffmanFoundation. The share of workers who are self-employed also rises with age. For example, the share self-employed is under 20% for adults below age 50, while it’s 46% for workers ages 65 to 69, calculate economists Katharine Abraham, Brad Hershbein, and Susan Houseman in the working paper Contract Work at Older Ages.

Working late in life isn’t for everyone, including those who have labored at low-pay, physically demanding jobs. Others may decide they want to enjoy full-time leisure. But creating a welcoming environment for older workers who want to stay employed is good for them, the employer, and the economy—especially now when management is finding it hard to hire the workforce they need and want.

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