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Older Americans Are Rethinking Work and Life

They are taking part in a ‘Great Reflection’

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Jo Ann Jenkins
Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders


I’m sure you’ve heard news reports about the Great Resignation, the unprecedented mass exit from the workforce that was spurred by COVID-19. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021 alone more than 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs. Many younger workers left their jobs, often in the hopes of landing new ones that paid better, were more fulfilling or granted greater flexibility, reports have said, while older workers chose these transitional times to leave their work years behind.

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Sadly, high inflation and scary investment losses recently have sliced into retirement savings, pushing some older people back into employment. But for many, the decision to leave their jobs early was never just about work. I believe something much larger and more significant is going on. The pandemic has given the entire country time to reflect on our lives and to ask if we needed a change. For many, the resounding answer was yes.

spinner image  jo ann jenkins  c e o of a a r p
Jo Ann Jenkins
Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Rather than the Great Resignation, we might then more usefully call this trend the “Great Reflection,” says Jeffrey Cole, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for the Digital Future. Much of this shift is about reimagining our lives, whether we are working or in retirement. This time of reflection is about our mental health as much as our financial health. It’s about focusing on the quality of our relationships and experiences and pursuing our passions.

The center has some telling research on this attitude that was released as part of its COVID Reset Project. That study found people today are valuing closeness to family and friends more than ever, and are prioritizing experiences that create memories more highly than before. It also found that people want leisure time to travel, and are eager for more education and training as part of personal growth.

At AARP, we recognize that the way people are looking at work and retirement is changing. And we want to help older Americans who are part of that change. That includes those who are still showing up on the job or planning to reenter the workforce. At a time when the demand for workers is high, older workers — like their younger counterparts — are seeking out employers that consider their overall well-being and can help them achieve the work-life balance they desire.

Through our Living, Learning and Earning Longer (LLEL) initiative, we work with employers to help them identify and implement promising policies and business practices, with a focus on recruiting, retaining and investing in a multigenerational workforce.

And the AARP Employer Pledge Program helps experienced workers and those reentering the workforce to identify companies that are committed to hiring older candidates and offering them the kinds of work environments they desire — flexible hours, more autonomy on the job and the freedom to have more family time.

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We recently launched a new initiative called the Business Case for Healthy Longevity, to help employers transform workplaces into ones that will foster greater health, longevity and well-being across the life course.

The Great Reflection is far from over. It may take years before we fully understand its long-term impact on the way we live. What we do know is that it has led many of us on a newfound search for meaning in our lives. For now, AARP is here to help you wherever you are along that road, be it working or creating your best post-work life.

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