The suddenly hot job market for workers over 50

Key Points
  • The unemployment rate for those ages 55 and over is 3.2 percent as of February 2018, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • That's lower than the current unemployment rate of 4.1 percent for the entire U.S. population and 14.4 percent for teens.
  • Many boomers facing retirement want to work because they fear they don't have enough money for retirement.
  • More companies are hiring experienced senior workers in this tight labor market.
At age 61, Michele Meagher was hired as a corporate communications specialist by Tufts Health Plan. She is part of a fast-growing segment of those remaining in the workplace well into their golden years.
Source: Tufts Health Plan

Michele Meagher, age 66, appreciates the way she's treated as an older worker by her employer, Tufts Health Plan, a nonprofit health insurance organization in Watertown, Massachusetts.

A corporate communications specialist, she was hired when she was 61. She's able to telecommute three days a week. She participates in a weekly "Fit Over 60" exercise class at the office. Her employer has allowed her to take classes to learn new skills. Meagher said that when she previously worked at a high-tech public relations firm, she was one of the oldest workers. But at Tufts "I see me everywhere. I'm not a minority," she said.

Indeed, Meagher is part of a fast-growing segment of those remaining in the workplace well into their golden years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for those ages 55 and over is just 3.2 percent as of February 2018. That's lower than the current unemployment rate of 4.1 percent for the entire U.S. population and a steep 14.4 percent for teens. Now, as the job market lurches back to life while the demographic of aging workers grows, companies in all types of industries — from banking and health care to insurance — are wooing the silver set with a variety of programs.

Two decades ago less than a third of people ages 55 and over were employed or looking for work. Today the share is 40 percent, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, up 10 percent from 1990. "There are a lot of those ages 55 to 70, and each of them is more likely to work now than in previous generations," said Matt Rutledge, a research economist for The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

He says that many boomers — facing longer live expectancies — feel they don't have enough savings to retire at age 65. That's in part due to the dwindling number of companies providing defined benefits; lack of pensions have caused many to hang in longer, said Amanda Sonnega, an associate research scientist with the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study. Rutledge says boomers also are better educated and these types of workers tend to stay in the workforce longer because they usually enjoy their jobs.

In a tight labor market, creating a climate attractive to older workers is essential, says Lydia Greene, chief human resources officer for Tufts Health Plan. The company's 401(k) program includes a supplemental match of 3 percent each year on top of the standard 4 percent match for employees contributing 6 percent or more of their income. Individuals ages 50 and over make up 34 percent of the company's workforce. They're hired at all levels, from physicians to clinical-care managers and administrative assistants. "They bring so much experience to the table," Greene said. "They're very stable and very reliable and help us develop and mentor our younger workers."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that those ages 65 and over will experience the fastest rates of labor force growth by 2024.
Stephanie Keith | Getty Images

Goldman Sachs' Returnship program allows the company access to a new type of talent pool: mature workers, said spokeswoman Leslie Shribman. It provides a 10-week training and mentoring program for those who have taken a career break of more than two years, equipping employees with skills to reenter the workplace. Of the 350 people who have completed the program, roughly half have returned to work at Goldman.

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At FCCI, a Sarasota, Florida-based company that provides commercial property and casualty insurance through independent agents, 34 percent of the workforce is age 50 and older. Lisa Krouse, the chief HR officer, said that with the insurance industry losing many of its mature workers over the ensuing years, there's merit in bringing on older workers. Their seasoned perspective serves the company well in both evaluating risks and building relationships, a fundamental tenant of the insurance business.

She said FCCI fosters a culture of wellness and pays 80 percent of all employees' health insurance and 100 percent of short- and long-term disability. The company offers its 825 workers technology coaching and hosts sessions on such issues as caregiving for aging parents and Social Security 101 and retirement planning.

Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston regularly recruits from a local organization called Operation A.B.L.E., which provides job opportunities for older individuals. Megan Bradley, the director of recruitment services, said snowbird retirees can pick up work when they return in the spring through a temporary agency owned by the hospital, BulFinch Temporary Services. A retiree medical plan allows eligible employees a more affordable way of paying the cost of medical coverage after retirement. The company provides a small financial subsidy and access to a private Medicare exchange, which has brokers who work individually with employees to find the most affordable Medicare plan that meets their medical needs.

Bradley believes being viewed as age friendly will serve the hospital well as it competes for future workers.

Some organizations are helping boomers wishing to change careers. A survey conducted last year of 2,078 adults by The Workplace Group, a recruitment firm in Florham Park, New Jersey, along with Lyon College and Rutgers University, found that 34 percent of those ages 53 and older defined themselves as being in the early or mid-career stage. "This suggests they're switching professions or starting new careers, doing something they maybe always wanted to do," said Steve Lindner, The WorkPlace Group's executive officer.

The Encore Fellowship offers a six-month to one-year opportunity for those ages 50 and older to work at a nonprofit for $20,000 to $25,000. It's provided more than 1,600 fellowships to date, including 957 in 2016 and 2017. Roughly half of the fellows go on to work in the nonprofit sector.

Anne Kirwan, the fellowship's managing director, says nonprofits are under-resourced. Fellowships allow these organizations "to get an experienced person who would [ordinarily] command a high salary but who wants to create meaning and purpose in their work life." Fellows, in return, learn about the nonprofit world.

After more than two decades working as a top executive for major banks, including J.P. Morgan Chase and Deutsche Bank, Sefi Shliselberg, now 61, wanted to devote her time to a pursuit that contributed more to society. She became a fellow with the Girl Scouts of America in New York in October 2016 as director of business development. "It was a remarkable opportunity to have an impact and really transfer my for-profit skills into a nonprofit in a big way," she said.

This month she'll start working at Change For Kids, a nonprofit that provides resources to underserved New York City elementary schools. Katrina Huffman, Change for Kids' executive director, said Encore fellows "have such an archive and wealth of information that nonprofits like ours can leverage. They can bring those skills to us and avoid pitfalls."

But there are still obstacles for some older workers. Laurie McCann, senior attorney at AARP Foundation Litigation, which represents low-income older individuals, said that while there are some "enlightened" companies that recognize the value of experience, age discrimination is still rampant. She points to 18,376 age discrimination complaints filed with The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2017. "We haven't done enough to challenge those stereotypes," that older people won't stay long before they want to retire and don't want to learn new technology. "Until we do, age discrimination is not going to go away."

Despite that hurdle, The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that those ages 65 and over will experience the fastest rates of labor force growth by 2024. Meagher expects to be one of those workers. "I love my job. I'm getting better every year, and my writing skills have improved. I could do this well into my seventies."

— By Julie Halpert, special to