People over 50 want to contribute to the economy and to society. Exceeding 37 percent of the Massachusetts population, people over 50 now encompass four generations — the Greatest, Silent, Boomer, and a growing share of Gen X. They are an expanding resource and eager to contribute, yet older adults are too frequently shut out of opportunities to use their experience and live financially secure lives.
Because of outdated thinking about the life course — education and career, followed by an increasingly long retirement — and a mistaken belief that older people can’t measure up, businesses are shunting to the sidelines the segment of our population with the most experience. Ironically, this occurs just as people reach their peak of productivity, problem-solving, relationship management, and other skills. As a result, we sacrifice the investment we have made in their development, we lose the value of their economic contribution, and worse, we turn a performing economic asset into a potential liability. We also deny individuals the chance to remain active, learn and grow, feel valued, pay their way, and contribute to their communities.
Makes no sense, right? If Massachusetts and New England are to become the Longevity Hub, as proposed in this Globe Opinion series, the region can begin by changing the way we think about, value, and engage the talent of people over 50. A quarter are currently working, but many more want to work and can’t find open doors. Half of all new businesses are started by people over 50, and they are twice as likely to succeed, yet more aren’t encouraged to open their own business. Nearly half of all volunteer hours are contributed by people over 50, but that number could grow much larger — nearly three-quarters of those over 50 don’t volunteer at all, a huge untapped opportunity. And about 40 percent are caregivers for grandchildren and other family members, enabling others to work, yet these contributions go unrecognized.
Massachusetts is fortunate to have an ecosystem in which a cross section of players from all sectors innovate and work collaboratively to assist people over 50. A distinctive twist on this collaboration is its focus on alternatives to traditional jobs. These include freelance, contract, remote, gig, and entrepreneurial roles. These forms of independent work are new to many people over 50, but they offer flexibility and autonomy, which many at this stage of life seek, while leveraging skills, experience, and connections. More than a third of all work now falls into this category, and this is an area of unrealized opportunity for older adults.
This Massachusetts ecosystem, and the broad array of initiatives it generates, lays a solid foundation for change. Here are some examples.
▪ Encore Boston Network brings together individuals, organizations, advocates, policy makers, researchers, and others around an explicit mission to leverage the assets of people over 50, a collaboration unique to the region.
▪ The 50+ Job Seekers Networking Groups, sponsored by Massachusetts Councils on Aging and funded by the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, tailors its programs to the specific needs of older workers statewide, a one-of-a-kind initiative.
▪ The Age-Friendly Institute, affiliated with Age-Friendly Ventures and RetirementJobs.com, based in Waltham, has pioneered Certified Age Friendly Employers, enabling businesses that qualify to demonstrate their commitment to older workers. The AARP Employer Pledge, a related program, also invites employers to affirm the value of experience.
▪ Operation ABLE offers employment and training opportunities for job seekers from economically, racially, and occupationally diverse backgrounds, including older workers and the underemployed.
▪ Founders Over 55, a Massachusetts-based collective that has tripled in the past year, draws together resources like AGENCY, Cambridge Innovation Center, Encore Boston Network, and SCORE to provide support for older entrepreneurs.
▪ Discovery Centers for Civic Engagement, an innovative pilot program sponsored by the Massachusetts Councils on Aging, is designed to connect older adults to nonprofit, municipal government, and other service opportunities in local communities.
▪ MSA Connects for Good, the most advanced volunteer engagement platform anywhere, enabling connection to age-appropriate service opportunities, was recently launched statewide by the Massachusetts Service Alliance.
▪ Fellowship programs offered by Conservation Law Foundation, Empower Success Corps, Lawyers Clearinghouse, and others connect senior-level professionals to a range of causes that benefit from their experience.
▪ Literations, a Massachusetts-based affiliate of AARP Foundation Experience Corps, brings the mentoring skills of older adults to bear on the literacy achievement gap in Boston public schools. This is one of several regional social action groups, and with support, more are possible.
With this solid foundation in place, there is much that can be done to fully integrate the “longevity dividend” of older workers and volunteers into the economy and society.
For example, employers should include age in their diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, demonstrating their intent to welcome older workers. We can help employers understand the benefits of hiring people over 50, but also the myths that too often stand in the way.
Protections against age discrimination have been weakened over time. They should be strengthened to give older workers a fair chance to challenge adverse employment decisions. Employers should drop age identifiers from job applications and change hiring practices that work against older job seekers. Employers must also understand the need for flexibility and other policy changes that address older-worker interests.
Covering transportation and other expenses, and investing in stipends and incentives, can make a difference for many who cannot otherwise afford to volunteer their talent. Commonwealth Corps and AmeriCorps, intended to provide service opportunities for people of all ages, can be reshaped and grown to more effectively encourage intergenerational learning, connection, and contribution.
The state needs to explore ways, perhaps through tax credits, to recognize the work of family caregivers when it enables economic activity that would otherwise not be possible. Finally, there needs to be investment in the ecosystem to build an infrastructure through which people over 50 can learn about and take advantage of opportunities to contribute. With clear-eyed commitment, the state and region can make economic engagement of older adults a centerpiece of the Longevity Hub and a model for other states to follow.
Doug Dickson is cofounder and board chair of Encore Boston Network.