You don’t take any medications?”
The doctor stared at me dolefully, then reframed the question.
“So, when you get up in the morning, what do you put in your mouth?” he asked with an air of exasperation, as if I was the one who wasn’t getting it.
“Oatmeal, usually, and tea with milk.”
“You don’t take any pills for high blood pressure? For your heart? Your bones?”
“Not even vitamins?”
He scanned my medical history, and the answer was there in black and white: a body mass index of 24, blood pressure a shade lower than the normal range, total cholesterol below 120, and no chronic disorders or ailments to speak of. There was just one outlier in this picture of good health: I recently turned 67. Which is why, when I saw a new doctor for my annual checkup, he had a hard time believing I wasn’t taking an arsenal of drugs simply to remain upright.
There is plenty of alarm about the unprecedented aging of humanity. Since 1950, the median age in developed countries has jumped from 28 to 40, and is expected to reach 44 by mid-century. The percentage of citizens age 65 and older is expanding accordingly, from less than 10 percent in 1950 in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan to a respective 20, 30, and 40 percent by 2050. The fear is that, as baby boomers like me march lockstep into “retirement age” (the first of us crested that hill in 2011), there will be fewer young workers to support us old folk, which will curb spending, strain the healthcare system, and drain Social Security and Medicare benefits.
“We’re going to see something we’ve never seen before—people in their 60s, 70s and 80s who want to continue working and remain connected.”
Yet it’s hard to reconcile this chilling prediction with my own experience. Thanks to genetic luck and some sensible lifestyle habits—I walk two miles every day, quit smoking decades ago, and have never set foot inside a fast food joint—I’m in as good or better shape than ever. I hike and travel, and still have the energy to work 50- to 60-hour weeks. I have a supportive network of family and friends, and a thriving career doing what I love. No longer crippled by the toxic insecurities of my youth, I’m the happiest and most fulfilled I’ve been in my life. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not even close to being put out to pasture.
Am I nuts? Although my doctor may regard me as some rare, exotic bird, the statistics tell a different tale. Every day, 10,000 Americans turn 65, and every day, more and more of them are just as fit as me. Society may still view able, competent, sound-of-mind seniors as happy curiosities. But the fact is we are quickly becoming a sizeable demographic.
“The aging of America is not the crisis that is often portrayed in the media or even in scholarly papers,” says Richard Johnson, an economist and senior fellow at the Urban Institute, in Washington, D.C, who, along with a growing number of social scientists, is helping redefine what it means to be old. The rise in cases of age-related illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and dementia is a real and urgent problem. But it’s not the whole story. “Today’s seniors are healthier, better educated, and more productive than ever,” Johnson says. “The challenge we face is finding ways to harness their talents.”
The “problem of old age” rose to public consciousness during the Great Depression, when mass unemployment left millions of aged Americans unable to support their families. In those days, life expectancy at birth was 59 for men and 63 for women; many factories retired workers as early as 40 (sometimes 35 for women). Social justice advocates lobbied the government to provide stipends to those deemed too old to work. But how old was too old?
In the 1930s, most doctors and scientists argued that old age should be defined biologically, according to the onset of physical markers such as disease or cognitive decline. By this definition, old age could strike at 60, or 80, or 40. In the end, though, economics won out over science: Only by limiting government assistance to those 65 and older could a national pension program be financially sustainable. And so with the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, and later Medicare in 1965, age 65 became officially “old.”
“Such policies assume that people over 65 are by definition in worse health, dependent, and in need of government support,” historian Tamara Mann writes in an essay for Ohio State University’s Origins magazine. Even as life expectancy skyrocketed (to 76 for men and 81 for women in 2014), and many workers traded hard labor for cushier desk jobs, this stereotype stuck around. Hollywood has only perpetuated the myth with sitcoms featuring dotty, sex-crazed grandmothers and movies like Grumpy Old Men and The Bucket List, in which snappish oldsters fumble through life in clouds of confusion.
Of course, there have always been people who defy society’s expectations. Just look at Jimmy Carter, age 91, flitting around the world on humanitarian missions; feminist icon Gloria Steinen, 82, still penning best sellers and courting controversy; Bernie Sanders, 74, barnstorming the country on a campaign for president; or my 97-year-old father-in-law, Charles Roberts, a retired Air Force colonel who lives alone, drives, travels, and recently started learning to speak Spanish.
But examples like these may soon become the norm rather than the exception. Not only are Americans living longer, but they are also gaining more active years, free of debilitating illness. In a recent analysis of Medicare and other data, researchers at the University of Illinois, in Chicago, found that nearly 30 percent of citizens over the age of 85 remain in excellent health, and a whopping 56 percent said their health didn’t stop them from working or doing household chores. This level of wellbeing is particularly remarkable given that most of this cohort grew up during the Great Depression, when millions of families suffered from poverty, poor nutrition, and idleness—all factors linked to shorter life spans and poorer health in old age.
Just imagine if these golden-agers had come of age, as their baby-boomer children did, during the post-war ’50s and ’60s—an era of unbridled optimism and industrial expansion, when science brought us antibiotics and cracked the genetic code, ushering in new medical technologies. Baby boomers also reaped the benefits of anti-cigarette campaigns, advances in nutrition, and the GI bill. We smoke less, exercise more, have better access to nutritious foods, and are better educated than any previous generation in history (although we’re also getting fatter).
Some innovative companies have already started to cater to their elderly personnel.
“We’re going to see something we’ve never seen before—people in their 60s, 70s and 80s functioning at an exceptionally high level who want to continue working and remain connected,” says S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health and co-author of the study. “Before, that number was small, but now it’s going to be large.”
The question is whether society will adapt to make the most of this new labor pool. Employers tend to implicitly favor the young, prizing speed, adaptability, and a willingness to work more hours for less pay, while undervaluing the years of accumulated knowledge, wisdom, and social skills that seasoned workers often bring to the table. After the 2007-2009 recession, unemployed workers in their 50s were 20 percent less likely than those between ages 25 and 34 to find a new job, according to an Urban Institute study. And the disparity hasn’t lessened. In 2014, according to the most current data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 45 percent of job seekers age 55 and older were unemployed for 6 months or more, compared to 34 percent of those age 20 to 54. “There’s a tendency to push [older people] out of the labor force,” Olshansky says. “But these folks are reservoirs of valuable information that we’re not tapping in to.”
In fact, companies may be losing productivity by passing over or letting go of veteran workers, says the Urban Institute’s Johnson. “Thirty years ago, younger workers were twice as likely to have a college degree as people in their late 50s, which increased productivity as more educated people entered the work force. But now the opposite is the case.” Thanks to soaring tuition costs and student debt, among other factors, college graduation rates are dropping. “People in their late 50s are more likely to have a college degree,” Johnson says, “and the educational attainment of the work force is falling as they retire.”
“We need to stop thinking about chronological age as a meaningful marker,” says Laura Carstensen, the director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity. “We’ve been given 30 extra years with no strings attached,” she says, referring to the near doubling of life expectancy, with no additional years of disability, over the past century. “We have to think about creating new cultures, and changing social norms and institutions to build a society that supports long life.”
In some ways, the shift toward a more senior-oriented society may already be underway. As the growth of the 55-plus demographic outpaces that of 20- to 54-year-olds, the balance of influence in the workforce is tipping toward the elderly. Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of American workers age 55 and older grew from 13 to nearly 20, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By the end of this decade, projections show, 1 in 4 people still punching a time card will be a senior citizen.
And our dependence on older workers will only increase as the economy grows. By 2025, according to a study by political economists at Northeastern University, in Boston, there will be more than 15 million new U.S. jobs but only about 9 million people of “working age” (18 to 64, as defined by the Census Bureau) to fill those positions. To avoid vacancies, businesses will be forced to find ways to keep workers on past retirement age. “Inevitably, employers will need to get with the program once they realize they have no choice,” Johnson says.
Indeed, some innovative companies have already started to cater to their elderly personnel. Take, for instance, the German luxury automaker BMW. In 2007, the managers of its 2,500-employee powertrain plant in Bavaria were wringing their hands over their aging staff, which was projected to rise in average age from 39 to 47 over the next decade. Older workers tended to clock more sick days and were slower on production lines. Worried about a productivity drop, the plant’s managers decided to revamp the work environment to better suit its older employees.
For an almost negligible $50,000, they tested out several modifications on a gearbox assembly line. Among the changes were flexible magnifying glasses, ergonomic chairs, vertically adjustable tables to prevent back strain, and wooden platforms and custom shoes to cushion aging knees. The managers then staffed the so-called “pensioners’ line” with a mix of workers whose average age was 47—the projection for 2017. The result? Within a year, the older assemblers had increased their productivity by 7 percent, bringing it in line with the output of their younger counterparts. (BMW has since expanded this pilot project to plants in Austria, Germany, and the United States.)
People who worked at least a year past retirement age had an 11 percent lower risk of dying.
Across the pond, at the Iowa-based engineering firm Stanley Consultants, hardly anyone actually retires. The company, whose civil engineers, architects, and scientists help plan and execute infrastructure projects around the world, consistently ranks among the AARP’s annual list of best employers for workers over 50. About 18 percent of Stanley’s 850 employees are in their 50s, 60s, or 70s. “We’re already experiencing a talent shortage in our industry, so we have to find ways of retaining our people,” says vice president Dale Sweere, who directs the human resources division. Employees eligible for retirement, for instance, can choose to stay on part time or on a per-project basis while drawing from a retirement fund. Even the company’s 73-year-old board chairman, Gregs Thomopulos, still works half time. “The standing joke around here is that we throw a retirement party for someone on a Friday and they’re back at work on Monday,” Sweere says.
There’s reason to believe that BMW and Stanley are harbingers of a future in which businesses recognize and benefit from the utility of older workers. For one thing, other pioneering employers are jumping on the bandwagon. There’s Goldman Sachs, whose “returnship” program provides training to retirees who want to restart their careers. There’s B&Q, the New York-based DIY and garden store, which makes a point of recruiting older workers with “soft skills” such as conscientiousness and customer rapport. There’s also Marriott, the hotel chain, which teaches new skills to older “associates” looking for less physically taxing positions. Even the U.S. federal government is adapting: In 2014, it began taking applications for phased-in retirement, in which eligible workers gradually cut their hours over 18 months in exchange for mentoring younger colleagues.
“Smart companies are crafting corporate benefits to make it possible to retain older workers,” says Chris Farrell, the author of Unretirement: How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community and the Good Life. And their efforts seem to be paying off. “Companies that make these changes have seen tangible improvements in retention and productivity, organizational culture, and the bottom line,” researchers Michael North and Hal Hershfield write in an article for Harvard Business Review. Since B&Q began recruiting older workers, for instance, its rate of staff turnover has decreased sixfold, absences have dropped 39 percent, and profits have gone up 18 percent. Unilever, the consumer goods multinational, has calculated that it earns €6 in productivity for €1 spent on wellness programs for older employees.
Workers, too, are profiting. Americans over age 60 are working longer and participating in the labor force at greater rates, according to a 2016 Brookings Institute report. And not just to beef up the bottom line. A study by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave found that nearly 50 percent of retirees want to continue working in retirement. About a third say it’s because they need the money. Two-thirds, however, say they just want to stay mentally active. “By the time people hit their 60s, they’ve developed a certain amount of skills and they don’t want to completely walk away from that,” Farrell says.
Studies consistently show that social connections, mental stimulation, and a sense of value are important to maintaining good health and psychological wellbeing. Working longer may even delay death, according to a recent analysis of two decades of retirement data by researchers at Oregon State University. After controlling for confounding factors such as demographics and poor health, the researchers made a startling find: People who worked at least a year past retirement age had an 11 percent lower risk of dying during the study period. If staying employed can keep older workers healthy longer, it may give them even more working years—a positive feedback loop.
I’m hopeful that in the coming decades, the American workplace will shed its legacy of ageism to embrace a more diverse and equitable culture—one that blends the energy and inventiveness of youth with the wisdom and experience of maturity. There are signs that it can—and will be better off for it. Because even in this age of instant social connections and viral sensations, sometimes old school still works best.
I was reminded of this when I heard a story Bob Woodward told at a writers’ conference in Washington D.C. in February. Woodward, who is 73 and has worked at the Washington Post for 45 years, is famous for his reporting with Carl Bernstein on the Watergate scandal, which brought down the Nixon presidency and won the Post a Pulitzer Prize. While on a recent assignment, he told the audience, a key source wasn’t returning his calls. So he resorted to an old gumshoe technique: He showed up on the guy’s doorstep.
“Hi, I’m Bob Woodward of the Washington Post,” he announced politely. The guy slammed the door in his face. Woodward knocked again. This time, the guy was willing to talk.
“Are you still doing this shit?” he said, and waved Woodward inside.
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover magazine and author of Fevered: How a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health.
This article was originally published in our “Aging” issue in May, 2016.