As someone whose job is to think about how people live in midlife, I spend a lot of time talking to people who are over 50 (like me) and often anxious.
We’re anxious that we might outlive our savings. We’re anxious about ageism in the workplace. And we’re anxious about becoming irrelevant in a culture that prioritizes the young, the new, the fresh.
Against this backdrop, a new book by Chris Farrell, Purpose and a Paycheck: Finding Money, Meaning and Happiness in the Second Half of Life provides some valuable context—and hope—about how people are navigating the second half of life.
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Farrell, senior economics contributor on the public radio show Marketplace and a columnist for the PBS website Next Avenue, is one of the leading voices on “unretirement,” a term he coined in 2016 to explain the changing nature of work and retirement, especially with so many working into their later years.
He isn’t known for sugar-coating, but he is focused on solutions, both at the personal and policy levels.
Farrell positions older workers as being in the “vanguard of inclusiveness by breaking down the barriers to staying employed.” Translation: As they fight ageism, older workers will be expanding the conversation about diversity to include age.
That’s a tall order. But the book is an excellent source of ideas for how to survive, thrive, and contribute until those barriers are actually broken down.
Below are snippets from my email conversation with Farrell.
How has “unretirement” changed since 2016 when you coined that term?
Here’s one indication of the embrace of late-career work: Between 1995 and 2016, the share of men ages 65 to 69 in the labor force rose from 28% to 38%. The comparable figures for women were 18% and 30%. The jobs run the gamut, from truck drivers to attorneys, from child care workers to nurses.
Another critical number with a similar message: The 55-to- 64-year-old age cohort accounted for more than 25% of new entrepreneurs in 2016, up from some 15% in 1996, according to the Kauffman Foundation.
What surprised you about later-life entrepreneurship and self-employment?
I had assumed entrepreneurship was Plan D: What to do when Plan A (a part-time, salaried job), Plan B (a flexible schedule with pay), and Plan C (new career, full-time job) didn’t pan out.
I was wrong, really wrong.
The attractions of entrepreneurship in the second half of life are many. You steer clear of human resource departments and their age-biased algorithms.
I’d like to highlight two exciting trends. First, the embrace of entrepreneurship is increasingly a multigenerational affair. For example, parents are going into business with their adult children.
The younger generation typically brings hustle to the venture and a facility with the latest technologies. The parents put in some investment money and plenty of work experience into the enterprise. I’ve seen the same dynamic at work with experienced entrepreneurs joining forces with younger entrepreneurs.
Second, the startup culture with older entrepreneurs in artisan and craft businesses. Think brewpubs, artisan liquor, handcrafted outdoor gear, pottery and small organic farms.
This book is brimming with stories of people flourishing well into their 80s. Yet so many people in their 50s and 60s, are feeling stuck. How do you reconcile those two realities?
I’m trying to walk a fine line. Age discrimination is real. Far too many people can’t find work because they’re considered “too old” or “too qualified.” Other experienced workers are languishing in jobs that help pay bills but don’t offer much creative engagement.
That said, the vision of the elder years is shifting from a model of leisure and decline to one of engagement and purpose. Workers are negotiating phased retirement with their employers, finding part-time work with the same or different employer, shifting to bridge jobs and encore careers with different employers and organizations, tapping into the gig economy, and returning to part-time and flexible employment after a spell of not working.
Here’s my prediction: The experiments and lessons learned in the pursuit of purpose and a paycheck by the current generation of experienced workers and second-life entrepreneurs will profoundly shape how younger generations think about their careers and jobs. The younger generation will realize they have more time to experiment, to try different careers paths, to alternate the rhythm of their lives, sometimes diving deep into work and at other times spending more time with family.
What do you think needs to change to overcome ageism and age discrimination?
We need to change the narratives about aging. An impressive body of scholarly research suggests that, given the opportunity, people in the second half of life can be as creative, innovative and entrepreneurial as their younger peers—if not more so. These stories should be told.
The relatively tight labor market is also a force for change. The demand for workers is healthy and more jobs are being filled with experienced workers. Experienced workers are increasingly valued as mentors. More managements are realizing that they can embrace experienced workers or lose business. Many more, I hope, will expand their definition of diversity to include the older workers.
And we need laws that put additional pressure on breaking down ageist barriers to employment. AARP’s proposed legislation—Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act—is a good starting place. The legislation would ensure the same standards are used for all employment discrimination victims, including age, race, gender, and sexual orientation.
You argue that much more unites the generations than divides us, yet there is plenty of older-bashing going on. How do we get more attention on the upside of generational collaboration?
I’m so frustrated! I wish I had better insights for combatting the lazy and wrong conventional wisdom around intergenerational warfare.
Consultants feast on offering expert advice on how companies can prevent generational strife from destroying productivity in organizations. Too many politicians stoke intergenerational warfare to attack Social Security and other earned benefit programs.
We have to keep telling stories that emphasize the shared commitments across the generations in the workplace, including the desire for flexibility, opportunities for advancement, and learning. We need to keep reminding the political class that most Americans of all ages support Social Security, Medicare, and other earned-benefit programs.
I like what Allen Glicksman, director of research and evaluation at Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, said several years ago. The main lesson he has learned over the years about the generations living together is this: “What’s good for old people is good for everybody and what’s bad for older people is bad for everyone in the community.” He’s spot on.
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