The Ottawa Citizen by Helen Hirsh Spence 29 March 2019
In response to intense lobbying efforts, the federal government recently introduced a budget that includes measures to increase pension security.
That’s good news. But it fails to address an arguably bigger issue: Older adults entering the job market — or simply trying to stay in the workplace.
As a growing number of Boomers reach that infamous milestone — turning 65 — I’ve seen quite a number of articles on the topic, as this great big demographic wrestles with their new title: Senior.
I’m one myself. I was hit with all the associated baggage when I attended my 50th class reunion, but perhaps my response was atypical. As I mingled among more than 100 former classmates, I realized I was gazing at a wealth of expertise in a range of fields. These people boasted impressive career accomplishments.
That’s when it hit me. The prevailing narrative — that our 60s signal a steep and irreversible decline into frailty and forgetfulness — needed to shift. Instead, we have to embrace what many studies, including my own, have shown: that people over 60 continue to grow intellectually, learn new skills, and remain politically active.
Re-engineering how we perceive age has taken on a degree of urgency. Advances in medical care and generally healthier lifestyles have contributed to longer lifespans.
When, in the 1930s, retirement age was determined, the average lifespan was 62 — you were rewarded for living until your mid-sixties! Despite the leap in longevity since then — the average lifespan today is 82 — we continue to declare that at 65 we are officially old. Nonsense!
According to Sarah Harper, professor of gerontology at Oxford University, children born today have an average life expectancy of 100. Canada has more centenarians than ever before, and this number will continue to rise. How will we spend those extra years? For starters, many of us will need to keep working to finance the cost of living longer.
Even so, our culture has so effectively absorbed the fear of ageing, we have become experts at self-sabotage. In one study I conducted, I asked respondents to describe what being old means. Individuals over 55 were twice as likely to invoke a negative word as a positive one. One participant said she had nothing against older people, she just didn’t want to be with them. Another said she wanted to shoot herself when she turned 75 (she was 65 at the time). It appears we only believe ourselves to be contributing members of society, and just plain fun, when we’re young — or at least, younger.
The facts tell a different story. Research shows that older adults can easily acquire new skills, make decisions more quickly than their younger counterparts, and even become more innovative with age. Older adults possess a deep understanding of corporate structure, and, for those still in the workplace, are reliable and committed to their jobs. A compelling business case can be made to retain or re-hire older employees, especially given that our country faces labour shortages in key sectors and that the number of Canadians over 65 will double within the next two decades.
Many of us aren’t waiting around for employers to figure this out. Boomers are among the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S. Individuals age 55 and over start approximately 23 per cent of all new business ventures and are also the largest cohort of gig workers, representing 37 per cent of independent contractors as of 2017. Not bad for a group of people regarded as past their best-before date.
To take advantage of this capable cohort, employers will have to overcome structural and self-directed ageism. And we Baby Boomers need to edit the stories we tell ourselves so that we can effectively use our abilities and experience.
I love the diversity that is celebrated in Canada, but I am saddened that one singular form of diversity, ageing, continues to be overlooked. Ageing is a positive force for good, but we all have to work to change the narrative.
Helen Hirsh Spence is the founder of Top Sixty Over Sixty and lead researcher for a study on self-directed ageism and the entrepreneur supported by the Ontario Centre of Workforce Innovation and Ryerson University.