Q&A: Still on the Job

Professional women are continuing to work well into their 60s and beyond.

By Kathryn Tyler May 1, 2013

0513cover.gifIn 2008, when Elizabeth F. Fideler turned 65 and the research grant funding her job ran out, she says she felt "put on a shelf." Fideler was not ready to retire, but finding another job proved difficult. She wondered what other women her age were doing and discovered an interesting trend: From 1997 to 2007, women age 65 and older were the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. workforce. Even the Great Recession did not dampen this trend, as the number climbed steadily through 2012.

Fideler, now a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, gathered her research in Women Still at Work: Professionals over Sixty and on the Job (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).

Why are women staying on the job longer?

Some need income due to divorce, to care for an elderly parent, or to help a child or grandchild financially. But the women I interviewed are also interested in the intrinsic rewards. They love what they do, take pride in their work and feel at the top of their game. They have a sense of purpose and want to make a contribution. They are highly educated, accomplished professionals in positions that are not very physically demanding. They worked hard to get where they are and are determined to keep at it.

What are the prospects for less-educated older women in blue-collar jobs?

Their prospects are not as bright. For them, it’s not about choice; it’s about need. They need to work longer, and they may not have the health and stamina to keep working.

Are certain fields or industries more receptive to older female workers than others?

Yes, it depends on the type of work you do. Remember, when these women graduated from college in the 1950s and 1960s, their job opportunities were severely limited to a few female-friendly occupations—teaching, nursing, the arts, social work, secretarial work. Those fields have not experienced the recession-related layoffs that put so many men out of work, such as those in manufacturing and construction.

And many older professional women took time out to raise families. Now they might be self-employed and have flexibility in their schedules. Just over half the women I interviewed are working full time, even if not on 9-to-5 schedules.

How can HR professionals support older female workers?

HR professionals can encourage part-time status for those who need or choose it and can provide options for transitioning gradually to retirement. Work/life balance is important. Telecommuting or other flexible schedules are helpful, especially for those who care for elderly or disabled relatives.

Provide training or retraining, as needed, for those who want to acquire or polish new skills. Offer mentoring opportunities, and recognize and celebrate older employees’ contributions.

If 65 is no longer the traditional retirement age, how long are women working?

Women are working as long as they want to and are physically able. I interviewed women 60 to 84 years old. Unless you are an airline pilot or a brain surgeon, where it seems appropriate, mandatory retirement has been almost eliminated. When to stop working is up to the individual.

A couple of the women I interviewed were feisty and said, "I’ll keep working until I can’t remember my own name!" or "I’ll be damned if I quit!"

The interviewer is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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