The summer of 2015 was oppressively hot and humid in Denver, which meant long, busy days for folks in the air-conditioning business. So naturally, Lou Bindner was at his desk every morning at Climate Engineering. "In summer, it's all hands on deck," Bindner says. "Peak season, nobody can take a day off."
Bindner works on sales and design of new systems. He bangs out the company newsletter. Because of his amiable, grandfatherly manner, he's the go-to guy at the firm for collecting from customers who are late paying their bills. "Lou is the best accounts-receivable person you could find," says Climate Engineering President Todd Flannery.
Plus, Bindner serves as the firm's institutional memory. After all, he's got a lot of it; he's been working in air-conditioning for more than six decades. He is 89 years old.
Bindner is one drop in a human wave of older workers who now play a major role in the U.S. economy. Physically healthy, not ready to stop working and perhaps not as financially comfortable as they'd like to be, tens of millions of older Americans are working today at ages when their parents and grandparents had retired.
Nearly a quarter-century ago, in 1991, only about 1 worker in 10 planned to stay in the workforce beyond age 65. Today, that number has risen to almost 4 in 10.
In 1991, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 30 percent of Americans age 55 or older were working. By 2013, the workforce participation rate for those 55-plus had passed 40 percent, and it's rising steadily. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says the current era marks the first time in U.S. history when four generations — pre-boomers, boomers, Generation X and millennials — are engaged in the workforce at the same time.
The implications of this phenomenon are so far-reaching that it has become a key subject of academic interest. AARP, of course, has always studied, and advocated for, older workers. But today there are centers and academies all over the place, including the Institute for Career Transitions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Center on Aging & Work at Boston College and the Center on Longevity at Stanford University.
And now, as if to confirm that "unretirement" is an authentic American trend, Hollywood has jumped aboard. The charming new Warner Bros. film The Intern, scheduled for release Sept. 25, relates the tale of a retiree who takes an internship at a dot-com start-up. In his job application, the 70-year-old intern (played by a gray-haired Robert De Niro) pinpoints the reasons employers should want an older worker. "I've always been a company man," he declares. "I'm loyal, I'm trustworthy and I'm calm in a crisis."
Today's older workforce has several different permutations
- Some people are so happy on the job they just don't stop. Lou Bindner, for example, has been with Climate Engineering since he started the firm 50 years ago. The famous investor Warren Buffet has a similar story: At 85, he is still running the company he took over in the 1960s, and his partner, Charlie Munger, is 91.
- Some workers formally retire from one career and jump into another. After three decades as a project management executive with IBM, Mary Jackson of Marietta, Ga., left the corporate office and became a fifth-grade teacher, at age 59.
- A large number of older workers have moved to jobs, paid or volunteer, at charities and nonprofits. For example, AARP and the Peace Corps have a partnership that places seniors in volunteer jobs around the world. Vivian Davis, of Austin, Texas, signed on at age 78 and worked two years battling HIV/AIDS in rural South Africa.
- And if anybody tells you that new-business start-ups all begin with tattooed 20-somethings trading ideas on social media, many older entrepreneurs would sharply disagree. A Kauffman Foundation study found that 26 percent of all start-ups in 2015 were created by people ages 55 to 64; in 1997, the figure had been 15 percent.
David Harshfield chose that path after 30 years as a technology executive. He liked his work, he explains, but over time it grew less and less secure. "The company was struggling; I wasn't surprised when my job ended. And then the odds were against me. Over 50, you can interview all you like, but the jobs aren't there. I needed to create my own destiny."
After much research, Harshfield chose the franchise Batteries Plus Bulbs and opened a retail store in Temecula, Calif. "I'm working seven days a week, but it's paying off," he says. "I feel like I hit a home run." Retirement? Not in the cards. Harshfield has taken a 10-year lease for his store, with a five-year extension. "That'll keep me busy until I'm about 70," he says.
Other countries where the average age is increasing, like Japan, Germany and Sweden, have seen a similar upswing in older workers. Around the world, the longevity economy is raising basic questions about the shape of a working career. Two World Bank economists, Wolfgang Fengler and Johannes Koettl, recently argued in a blog that the whole idea of a "retirement age" should be retired. "A binary system of working 100 percent until retirement and then suddenly moving to zero percent at an arbitrary age of around 65 is one of the great anachronisms of today's labor market."
A stronger work ethic
Economists almost universally agree that the surge in older workers is a win-win-win: a boon to employers, a boost for the U.S. economy and a bonus for the workers.
For employers, the "unretired" provide a pool of experienced labor that has proved to be productive, dedicated and loyal. As the post-recession economy moves back toward full employment, many industries are finding it harder to fill jobs, particularly in skilled trades. "Workers aged 50-plus can help employers address current and future talent shortages," noted a study this spring prepared by Aon Hewitt for AARP. And once the job is filled, it tends to stay filled; the same study found that "workers 50-plus are less likely than younger workers to leave their jobs unexpectedly."
Researchers at the University of Kentucky surveyed large and small companies to assess how employers evaluate their older workers. The respondents said that workers 50 or older are more reliable than the younger generations; they show up for work on time. They have a stronger work ethic, too; the younger worker is more likely to arrive late and leave early. Older workers' experience makes them better able to manage problems and respond to emergencies, and it makes them valuable mentors to younger people in the firm. Plus, they know how to deal with people and provide better service to customers.
Older Americans are prodigious consumers, and older employees can help companies tap that lucrative market. Who better than a senior to figure out what older people are likely to buy? Benjamin Franklin is credited with the invention of bifocals — something he did at the age of 78, because he needed them himself. Barbara Beskind, a 91-year-old engineer/designer at the famous firm IDEO, says she is working on products that she and her friends need, such as improved walkers, supportive walking sticks and face-recognition glasses that whisper the name of an old acquaintance who approaches you.
There is a perception that older employees are expensive — that they're hard to train and their health care costs are higher. But several studies have shown that it's wrong to assume an older worker will cost more.
"When I am asked 'Do older workers cost more?' the answer is 'They cost different,' " says Susan Nordman. She ought to know. She's the CEO of Erda Handbags, a Dexter, Maine, manufacturer where more than half the workforce is over 60. At a hearing this summer before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Nordman said that she had to rearrange the shop floor and buy equipment to accommodate her senior employees. But, she said, the benefits of the older workers' skill, experience and dedication outweigh those extra costs by a considerable margin.
Older workers enrich the country
For the economy as a whole, the flood of experienced people with a strong work ethic into the workforce has increased productivity and enhanced economic output. In short, older workers make the U.S. a richer nation. In some fields, such as nursing, recruiting and retaining workers who are 50 or older have become essential tools to offset a dearth of skilled workers.
Beyond that, the millions of people working past retirement age have reduced the threat of the so-called silver tsunami: the fear that the number of older people on Social Security and Medicare would overwhelm the number of working people whose taxes pay for those benefits. Delayed retirement, the Social Security Administration says, "shortens the retirement period that needs to be funded and can generate additional savings" for the funds.
For the older workers — and particularly for the millions who took a severe economic hit during the Great Recession of 2007-2009 — staying in the job can allay the fear that they will outlive their money. Surveys of older workers show several reasons why people have not yet retired, but the major attraction seems to be the chance to keep earning, thus delaying the need to draw from savings or Social Security. For people below the Medicare age of 65, staying on the job can also mean staying with an employer's health insurance plan.
But it's not strictly a financial matter. "Money and access to health care are, of course, of considerable importance," according to the AARP Public Policy Institute, "but so are the desires to remain active, make a contribution and maintain social relationships at work. Furthermore, these workers often enjoy what they are doing."
Back at Climate Engineering in Denver, Lou Bindner says he definitely enjoys what he is doing — so much that he can't bring himself to retire. In 2004, when he was a mere boy of 78, Bindner did announce his retirement. His clients and family held a big farewell bash at Denver's Coors Field. With time on his hands, Bindner played tennis, joined a softball team and perfected his recipe for a very, very dry martini ("You put the gin and a dollop of vodka over ice with a lemon peel. Then you whisper the word 'vermouth' over the top of the glass").
But it didn't take. Within months, Bindner was back at his desk every day. "The air-conditioning business is interesting," he explained. "It's challenging. It's a service people really need.
"And it's a business I know. Retirement—I don't know anything about that. I've never figured out how to do it."
T.R. Reid is an author and filmmaker well past retirement age and still working. His book on how to fix the U.S. tax system will be published in 2016.