Harvard Business Online

Where the Boomers Will Find Jobs


Posted on Harvard Business Review: March 29, 2010 11:34 AM

If you're an older manager who's been laid off (or is under threat), the future probably looks pretty bleak. Do you take a job at Walmart or work part time? You might lie awake at night and stare at the ceiling, asking yourself: What will happen to my family? My savings? My way of life?

You may also recall—with a bit of bitterness—all the rosy projections of think tanks and experts who predicted that there would be plenty of work for people in the baby boom generation going forward. For example, in 2004, HBR authors Ken Dychtwald, Tamara Erickson and Bob Morison wrote a seminal article called "It's Time to Retire Retirement" in which they argued that, given the imminent retirement of millions of boomers, "we've recently passed what will prove to be a historic low in the concentration of older workers. Just when we've gotten accustomed to having relatively few mature workers around, we have to start learning how to attract and retain far more of them."

Sigh.

These projections were made before the Great Recession dried up millions of jobs and, simultaneously, retirement funds for people who once looked forward to their sunset years.

Enter Barry Bluestone, Dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, with heartening news. Bluestone, who has a serious track record in labor market analysis (and who carries a Medicare card himself), reiterates the findings of demographers like Dychtwald. According to a paper released by the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures, a think tank focusing on boomers, work and social purpose, Bluestone predicts that there will be at least 5 million potential job vacancies in the United States by 2018. (Bluestone's research is one of four papers written by independent experts, all of which can be found at www.encore.org/research).

So where are these jobs? Nearly half of them will be in the social sector—which makes them appealing to boomers who might be ready use their hard-earned expertise to give back to society. Specifically, the jobs will be in:

• Health care (nursing, home health care, medical assistants, and so on);
• Education (teachers, teacher assistants and child care workers)
• Nonprofits and government (business operations specialists; general and operations managers; receptionists and information clerks)
• Social services: (clergy and social and human service assistants).

As with everything, there are several caveats. First, the projections are based on the assumption that the economy returns to a healthy growth rate, that immigration rates stay stable, and that boomers retire from the labor force at the same rate and age as current older workers. Those are all big ifs. It also assumes that people who hail from previously highly-paid professions are willing to retrain for lower-paying ones. And it assumes that those who are currently unemployed, underemployed, or stuck in jobs they hate can hold on by their fingernails until the jobs become available.

Still, Bluestone is convinced that even at a measly projected growth rate of 1%, we're looking at a serious need for workers in the industries named above. "As the economy slowly recovers—and it will—there will be a job for you if you're 55 and above," he insists. "To get that job, you need to broaden your horizons and think about skill sets you have or could easily develop. If you have good middle management skills, with a bit of retooling you can be a middle manager for senior citizen housing."

And what about the elephant in the room—ageism? Will companies want to invest in people who may only have a limited number of working years left in them? "Ageism won't go away," says Bluestone, "but if I'm right, a lot of firms will have to figure out a new way to configure jobs to accommodate older folks."

Still, it's the best employment tidings anyone has heard in quite some time. And these days, any silver lining is pretty darn welcome.


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