Future Research on the Aging Workforce Must Consider Diversity of Older Workers’ Experiences, Says National Academies Report Co-Authored by Dr. Ernest Gonzales
Associate Professor and MSW Program Director Ernest Gonzales was one of ten members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s (National Academies) Committee on Understanding the Aging Workforce and Employment at Older Ages, which recently released the report Understanding the Aging Workforce: Defining a Research Agenda.
The Committee was convened in April 2020 at the request of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation “to review and assess what is known about the aging workforce in the United States, identify gaps in current knowledge and data infrastructure, and make recommendations for future research and data collection efforts.” The impetus was the continued aging of the U.S. population at the same time medical and public health advancements have enabled some – but not all – older adults to live and work longer, with implications for the labor force, economy, Social Security, and other social programs.
As the report summary notes, “these trends have also occurred amidst a complicating backdrop of widening economic and social inequality that has meant that the gains in health, improvements in mortality, and access to later-life employment have been distributed unequally.” The resulting report highlights the need for a better understanding of the relationship between employers and older employees; how work and resource inequalities over the life course shape opportunities and choices in later life; and the interface among health, work, volunteering, and caregiving.
Two overarching findings that emerged from the committee’s critical review of the extant scholarship were that 1) both age bias and economic inequities impact older adults’ work preferences and opportunities, and 2) vulnerable older populations, including women, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and those with multiple intersecting vulnerabilities, remain understudied and unsupported. Within that wider lens, the committee identified “The Employer-Older Employee Relationship”; “Work and Resource Inequalities in Later Adulthood”; and “The Work-Health-Caregiving Interface” as particularly salient areas for future research.
As the only social worker on the committee, which also included experts from economics, psychology, organizational psychology, labor relations, and sociology, Dr. Gonzales emphasized the importance of the person-in-environment, intersectionality, and cumulative disadvantage. “I wanted to disrupt the idea that many gerontologists have that older adults are a monolithic population and stress that research on older White adults is clearly not enough to understand complex social structures,” he said. “We need to think about life course issues and how one’s experience as an older adult is very different depending on their position in society. We have to look at all the interacting levels and understand the person’s history and society’s history to get an understanding as to why they are working longer or not.” As such, Dr. Gonzales was pleased that the report has an equity and socio-ecological framework and that the diversity of the aging workforce’s circumstances was a major theme throughout.
Dr. Gonzales noted how honored he was to be invited to serve on the National Academies’ committee. The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln and are charged with providing “independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.”
One of the messages Dr. Gonzales said that the committee wanted to convey to policymakers, including Congress and foundations, is that work and health are interrelated. “Currently Congress penalizes the National Institute on Aging (NIA) when it funds research related to labor. Their position is that the NIA and the National Institutes of Health should fund research related to health, period, and that labor force issues are the province of the Social Security Administration and Department of Labor. One objective we wanted to highlight in this report is that the quality of work is so intrinsic to our health and our health is so intrinsic to opportunities to work that research funding should not be siloed in this way.”
Another important point Dr. Gonzales said the report conveys is the limitations of “carrot and stick” policies to promote work and delay retirement. “Most of our Social Security incentives and disincentives are just that,” he said. “If you retire early you get a deduction in your payout and if you don't claim Social Security retirement income until the age of 70 you get 8% more per year for every year that you delay past your normal retirement age.” By contrast, the report suggests that if we were to eliminate inequities in health and systemic oppression, people of all races, ethnicities, and other identities would have the capacity and potentially the desire to continue to work. Ending ageism is certainly important but it must also co-occur with ending racism, sexism and all forms of bias in the labor market. I think we would find most people would want to engage in meaningful work longer because it gives us purpose, because it fulfills our desire to give back to society at a critical stage of development. I came away from my work on this report even more convinced we need to examine structural factors and not continue to signal that folks need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”