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How Old Is Too Old to Work?

How Old Is Too Old to Work?

The media is fond of feel-good stories like the stockbroker who worked until he was 101, or the man who retired after 33 years -- from his second career. He was 98 and had been forced to leave his first job at the mandatory retirement age of 65.

But despite the aging of America, these "older old" workers are still the exception rather than the rule. The reality, says AARP strategic policy adviser Sara Rix, is that most people 75 and over are no longer in the workforce. They are not physically incapable of handling their jobs, she notes. Rather, their interests and needs change. Some leave the workforce voluntarily. Others face mandatory retirement rules.

And some, of course, fall victim to age discrimination. "It's pervasive," Rix says. "After 55 or 60, it's hard to find meaningful employment." So when should you really retire? How old is too old?

That's hard to say. Some industries and sectors are more hospitable to older workers.

Age-Friendly Careers

It is easier to be an 80-year-old journalist than a bus driver the same age, Rix cites as an example. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, men and women who are self-employed or own their own business, and those with autonomy to control their work environment can continue to work full-time. Often they can scale back their schedules as desired.

However, even these jobs do not include as many 90-year-olds as they could. Drop-offs in full-time employment usually occur after 60 or so, said Rix. But what is traditionally thought of as "retirement" age is moving up, she adds. In 1985, 18 percent of all 65- to 69-year-olds were still working. In 2005, 29 percent were still on the job, and the trend continues.

Convincing Employers Is Key

Is there an age after which employers don't want full-time workers? An AARP study found that 60 percent of respondents age 45 to 74 believe age discrimination exists, and 13 percent reported experiencing or witnessing age discrimination in the past five years. Another study examining hundreds of job applications found that those purportedly sent by "younger" people were 40 percent more likely to result in an interview request than those sent by "older" ones. Furthermore, job seekers 55 and older have an especially difficult time finding work. As of April 2012, they were unemployed an average of 60 weeks, compared with 38.5 weeks for workers younger than 55, according to the AARP's Public Policy Institute..

"And that doesn't take into account the number of 55-plus men and women who drop out of the labor force altogether after displacement [layoffs]," Rix adds. "That's whoppingly high."

Even companies considered to be open-minded see older workers in a less-than-flattering light. "They know older people are experienced, loyal, dependable, good with customers and use good judgment," Rix says. "But they also say they lack technical competence, and they worry they can't learn new things. Studies show that's not true." Many employers also worry that older workers will drive up healthcare costs and wonder how long older hires will stay on the job.

Investing in Experience

"Someone 50 is not an 'older' worker," says Deborah Russell, AARP's director of workforce issues. "He or she will work at least 15 more years. That's a significant investment for a company."

"Looking at a 70-year-old, that person could sit behind a computer for 20 more years," Russell adds. "A job like a nurse or a mechanic might have diminishing returns because of the physical demands, but for airline pilots, police and other jobs where there have always been mandatory retirement rules, we need to take a closer look at those ages. Should someone 70 fly a plane? If they can pass the stringent physical and mental tests, why not?"

One Solution: Don't Leave

What can older workers do to fight stereotypes and biases? "If you want to work in retirement, don't retire," advises Rix. "It's easier to keep your job than get a new one. If you do leave your job, try to find a new one before you go. Technology does change. Be sure you're up on the latest technology, both in your area of specialization and in the workplace itself. And recognize that the interview process is different than it was 40 years ago. The questions have changed, and you're likely to be talking with someone much younger than you."

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