The Current

More support needed to keep retirement age people in the workforce, experts say

Helen Hirsh Spence says that as people live longer, more needs to be done to keep people around who are nearing retirement age but want to continue working, both for them, and for the workforce.

Supports, flexibility can help meet challenges of aging workforce and labour shortages

A group of seniors gather outdoors in June 2021, in Ottawa. Statistics Canada said Wednesday that more than one in five working adults is now nearing retirement, which will create significant challenges for Canada's workforce. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Helen Hirsh Spence says that as people live longer, more needs to be done to hold onto employees who are nearing retirement age but want to continue working, both for their sake — and for the workforce.

"I think retirement … is an outdated notion, and I think it's going to have to shift to modified or graduated retirement for people who really want to retire," Hirsh Spence told Matt Galloway on The Current.

"But it's not something that you do in the same way you may have done in earlier generations."

Hirsh Spence went back into the workforce after she retired; now she helps others do the same. She is the founder and CEO of Top Sixty Over Sixty, an organization that does just that. 

And she says now is an important time to get older workers back on board. According to a new census from Statistics Canada, Canada's working-age population is older than it has ever been. It found that more than one in five working adults is now nearing retirement. Those departures could be especially problematic given that Canada is already in a labour shortage; with more than 915,000 job vacancies in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to the most recent data available.

Going forward, says Brendon Bernard, senior economist with job site Indeed Canada, keeping some of those retirement age adults around will be key to filling that void in the labour force.

"The fact that more Canadians are hitting those age groups means we are in the middle of a wave of retirements that's going to continue as the population ages," said Bernard.

When people work longer, it slows the impact of an aging population on the workforce, he said. Hirsh Spence agrees, and said those older adults are not only important, but able.

"We're sticking to a notion that was valid in the 1930s when the average lifespan was 62, and 65 was the reward for living that long," she said.

"Today, 65 is really young because most of us are going to be living into our 80s or 90s or even 100." 

She said its important for people who are nearing that traditional retirement age to keep working, not just for the stability of the workforce, but also for themselves. The people she talks to sometimes feel like they've lost their sense of value, said Hirsh Spence.

Confronting ageism

"We don't realize to what extent ageism is harmful, not only to individuals, but to their communities and to the economy by denying older adults the opportunity to either stay in the workforce or re-enter the workforce," she said. 

"It's a huge health issue actually, that hasn't really been addressed and needs to be addressed."

And Hirsh Spence said there are other benefits to keeping older adults around.

"They bring experience. They bring knowledge. They bring a vast network. They bring innovation. Contrary to what one might believe, older people are very creative, are even more innovative," she said. 

Helen Hirsh Spence said a lot of older adults get a lot of self worth from their work. (Rob Elliott/AFP/Getty Images)

Donna Wilson's research has found ageism is part of what prevents some older adults from continuing to work.

"There's often discrimination at work where you were told you will not be promoted because of course, you'll be sick, you'll be retiring soon, and we can't take a chance on putting you into this senior management position," said Wilson, a professor and gerontology researcher at the University of Alberta; "all the sort of subtle encouragement to move on and let a young person that needs your job, take your job."

In many cases it's not that people retire because they can't work anymore, said Wilson. Instead they retire because they're financially able to do so, in good health, want to start new careers, or have grandchildren with whom they want to spend time. 

Helen Hirsh Spence said people close to retirement age can still bring a lot to the workforce. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

She also said people can be passed over for new jobs because of their age.

"But it would be really nice as well, too, if we started having more laws that would outlaw, you know, using age as a criterion. Why do you have to put your age down on a job application?" said Wilson. 

Instead of being pushed out, Wilson said retirement age adults may just need some support. Even if they are in poor health, they still have value and can be kept on board with accommodations, such as flexible work schedules or a wheel chair if someone has trouble standing too long, she said.

Wilson also recommends retraining for workers who need help keeping up with changing technology and skills. And she said that should apply to more than just the older workers. 

"I think one of the most important things is that it's offered to all of the employees that you that you have regardless of age," said Wilson.

"One of the most important things employers need to say to older workers is, you know, we're not expecting you to retire. We hope you keep working and we want to we'll do everything that we can."


Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Howard Goldenthal, Alison Masemann, and Enza Uda.

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