Feb 12, 2020 - Economy & Business

The aging future of work

In this illustration, one person holds an iPhone while another person holds a landline

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The tightening labor market is opening up new opportunities for an overlooked cohort of American workers: those over age 50.

Why it matters: Ageism has long persisted within American companies, and studies have shown that workers over 50 often get turned away from jobs even if they've got the right qualifications. But the tide may be turning.

The big picture: As societies age, the older population will become increasingly key to global economic growth, both as workers and as consumers.

  • "Nearly all of the employment growth in the G7 is coming from older workers," says Andrew Scott, an economist at London Business School.
  • In the U.S., people over 50 make up $8 trillion of consumer demand, according to AARP.

What's happening: The collision of demographic and employment trends is pushing firms to adapt. "There's a lot of discrimination to overcome, but with a tight labor market and fewer younger workers, it's beginning to change," Scott says.

  • Employment in the U.S. has risen by 22 million since 1998 — and workers over 55 account for 90% of that surge, Quartz reports.
  • The growth is occurring at the high-skill and low-skill ends of the spectrum, Scott says.
  • For example, last year, McDonald's announced a partnership with AARP to hire 250,000 older workers.

Yes, but: While well-paid professionals may enjoy working later in life, many people at the lower end of the spectrum remain in the workforce because they cannot afford to retire, says Scott.

  • And the picture is not entirely rosy. Many older Americans perceive that they lost their jobs due to ageism, and more are taking legal action.
  • In the last year, top firms like Citibank, IBM and IKEA have fielded age-related lawsuits, per Forbes.

The bottom line: "We've ignored how aging is changing," Scott says. "People are aging better than in the past, on average, and that's a fantastic opportunity."

  • But "a lot of American businesses have not adjusted themselves to how to take advantage of this as opposed to looking at it as a negative," Carl Van Horn, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, tells Axios.

Go deeper: When automation and aging collide

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