How Long Will You Work?

In America, the ratio of children under 18 to adults over 65 is currently about 2:1. By 2030, it will be almost equal.1 Those statistics are among many offered by sociologists who study demography and employment to help them make the case that the aging of the so-called baby boom generation might exert a significant impact on the workforce in coming years. Already in the world of science, particularly in academia, changes have begun that could foreshadow an emerging new workplace structure featu

Apr 30, 2001
Steve Bunk
In America, the ratio of children under 18 to adults over 65 is currently about 2:1. By 2030, it will be almost equal.1 Those statistics are among many offered by sociologists who study demography and employment to help them make the case that the aging of the so-called baby boom generation might exert a significant impact on the workforce in coming years. Already in the world of science, particularly in academia, changes have begun that could foreshadow an emerging new workplace structure featuring increased participation of employees who are beyond traditional retirement age.

Such changes were heralded in 1986, when the Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 was amended to prohibit mandatory retirement on the basis of age for almost all workers. Tenured university employees of 70 or older were initially exempted, but they came under the law's protection in 1994. This raised the concern that too many older professors might continue working for too long, notes University of Florida sociology professor John C. Henretta. He adds that this generally has not happened. "In fields of major change occurring over time, it's quite easy to become obsolete," he observes with regard to scientific research. "My physics professor in college used to say, 'Old ideas don't die, their proponents do.'"

But Henretta also points out that retirement for leisure has only existed for a quarter century. While labor force participation among people 65 or over is currently only about 12 percent, whether or not increasing numbers of older people will want to work longer as the age demographics change could depend on their own economic circumstances as well as employers' needs, Henretta suggests.2

Joseph F. Quinn, an economist and dean of the college of arts and scientists at Boston College, maintains that a century-old trend toward increasingly earlier retirement among American workers ended in the mid-1980s.3 The major contributors to this change that he identifies are government policies such as the ADEA amendments, improving health in older workers, the shift from manufacturing to less arduous service occupations, and a decline in the importance of pension plans that focus on employer-provided benefits rather than employee contributions.

The latter shift mirrors conditions in academia, which long has had "defined contribution" retirement plans that encourage longer careers, because they don't involve a large payout at traditional retirement age. However, Quinn believes the "delightful" nature and conditions of university employment are significantly different from most of the rest of the working world, which makes it a poor template for coming changes. One development he does foresee proliferating is a gradual retirement involving so-called bridge jobs. "Many people are using what, to me, are more interesting exit routes," Quinn notes.

Reducing the Workload

"Universities are doing what is known as step-down retirement," concurs C. Neil Bull, a University of Missouri sociology professor. He adds that major objectives of this phasing out of older professors by slowly reducing their workload are to promote mentoring and to let graduate students complete their work under the same supervisor with whom they began. Another reason is concern over rising social welfare expenses.4

In unpublished work, Bull examined a cohort of retiring professors at his university. "It looks as though a whole lot of the scientists drop out almost immediately, but there is a group that goes on," he comments. Those who continue working tend to write, consult, and do theoretical study rather than experimentation. He points out that these types of work suit what psychologists call "crystallized intelligence." It requires a high level of verbal skill and often increases with age, whereas "creative intelligence" tends to decline with age.

University of Iowa school of social work professor Lorraine T. Dorfman's findings generally corroborate those of Bull. For more than 10 years, she interviewed and surveyed retired professors in the United States and United Kingdom, a cohort that eventually totaled 431.5 She concluded that scientific researchers often find it harder to continue working after traditional retirement age than do those in the humanities, largely because of the need to obtain grants, to have lab or office space and assistants, and to keep abreast of rapid changes in their fields.

"Only a handful could continue laboratory work," she recalls. "When the money runs out, and it often does for older faculty, the lab ceases. A few continued to work collaboratively in their colleagues' laboratories. I can't say whether it was the highest achievers, but it was certainly highly motivated people who continued scientific work."

Dorfman hopes that universities are becoming forerunners of new possibilities for older workers. "They certainly have the opportunity to utilize older people in creative ways," she notes, citing outreach programs, fund-raising, and mentoring. "A number of universities are using post-tenure reviews on a regular basis, often every three to five years," she comments. "This may lead to individualized portfolios, particularly more teaching and service at later ages for faculty who become less research-productive."

Universities are also relying on more part-time positions than in the past, for both younger and older workers. This trend has appeared in many other fields, due to technological innovations and concerns about profit margins, among other factors. Sociologists debate whether these changes represent a reduction of economic security or a new era of choice and lifestyle options.6

The Three Boxes

Most seem to agree that the "three boxes" of life identified in the sociological literature have disappeared. These boxes are childhood as a time of learning, middle age for work and family responsibilities, and old age for leisure in retirement. Instead, an emerging continuum of learning and work interspersed with periods of leisure throughout life is envisaged. Yet, this potential emergence is hampered by a "structural lag," in that the various institutions of industrialized society still tend to separate people of different ages according to the three boxes.7

Finally, individual drive is a variable in predicting how many years people will work. "I'm a great believer in continuous work, every day," says F. William Sunderman, director of the Institute for Clinical and Laboratory Science at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. "If you maintain an active interest, things go along about the same." A chemist and physician who also holds a doctorate in literature, he goes to the office at 8 a.m. each workday, and declares, "I'll never retire." Sunderman is 102 years old.

Steve Bunk (sbunk@uswest.com) is a contributing editor for The Scientist.
References
1. P. Uhlenberg, "Integration of old and young," The Gerontologist, 40:276-81, June 2000.

2. J.C. Henretta, "The future of age integration in employment," The Gerontologist, 40:286-92, June 2000.

3. J.F. Quinn, "Has the early retirement trend reversed?" Retirement Research Consortia conference paper, Washington, D.C.,1999.

4. P. Uhlenberg, "Introduction: why study age integration?", The Gerontologist, 40:261-6, June 2000.

5. L.T. Dorfman, The Sun Still Shone: Professors Talk About Retirement, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997.

6. D. Dannefer, "Paradox of opportunity: education, work, and age integration in the United States and Germany," The Gerontologist, 40:282-92, June 2000.

7. K. Loscocco, "Age integration as a solution to work-family conflict," The Gerontolgist, 40:292-300, June 2000.