Gray power: How older women can solve economic problems

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Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Janet Yellen: women close to retirement age who are changing the world. Of course, these women are outliers in many ways.

Still, their exploits -- at a time when much of Western society expects women of a certain age to be settling into retirement, elasticated waistbands and grandchildren -- are likely to be less notable in years to come, as more and more women push forward in their careers after turning 55.


Rather than put on the "granny track" – an ever-decreasing slide towards shorter hours and eventual retirement - more older women should be full steam ahead at work, and could help solve some of our most pressing economic and business problems.

"They (older women) often need to leave the labour market to care for loved ones and then find they cannot return – or do not even consider it is a possibility," Ros Altmann, the U.K. pensions minister, told CNBC.


"These social norms need to change, in order to make the best use of the excellent resource and talents of older women who want or need to work longer, even if it is on a part time basis. This will improve their lifetime incomes as well as adding to economic growth."

Put simply: the longer women keep working, paying taxes and buying consumer goods, the more they contribute to the economy.


Productivity puzzle

Much of the recent recovery in the labour market in both the U.S. and Europe can be attributed to increased input from older women. I think we need to qualify this/cite it to someone?

In the U.S., the overall gain in labor-force participation among workers age 55 and older between 1975-2010 was driven by the increases in women working, up from 23.1 percent of the 55+ workforce in 1975 to 35.1 percent in 2010, according to the Sloan Center.

And in the U.K., employment rates among women who are aged 65-74 have risen steadily since the financial crisis in 2008.

They may also provide a partial answer to the "productivity puzzle" – where productivity, or the output per worker per hour, has continued to be weak despite an otherwise healthy labour market.


At the moment, increased participation of older women in the workplace usually has a slightly negative effect on productivity because older generations of women have lower skills than their male counterparts, because of societal inequalities at the time when they were younger.

However, as better-educated women age, this effect is likely to shrink and "may even disappear" – with positive consequences for productivity, according to economists Philip de Jong and Apostolos Tsiachristas, in a review for the European Employment Observatory.


Life lessons

Those older women who are leaning in have plenty to contribute.

Much like fictional sleuths Jessica Fletcher and Miss Marple, who use their knowledge of how people work to solve crimes, older women in the workplace can employ their own life experience.

The skills women over 55 at senior management levels have gained in the workplace mean they are potentially the most effective at changing businesses, according to a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).


"They are more likely to be strategists, who can make genuinely transformational change, partly because of different experiences and also greater ability to both argue their points and empathise with other perspectives," Jessica Leitch, a consultant at PwC, told CNBC. She is one of the authors of the report which argues that women over 55 can solve some of companies' most intractable problems.

These leaders are most likely to be in non-executive or consultancy roles, rather than embedded in the company, she argued.

"They aren't afraid to make points which don't sit with the party line," she added.

- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle