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Are We Taking Full Advantage of Older Adults' Potential?

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Document date: December 13, 2007
Released online: December 13, 2007

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

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Abstract

Staying engaged in work and formal volunteer activities at older ages significantly benefits the well-being of the volunteers, the organizations that count on them, the people served by those organizations, and the economy.  This study, based on data from the Health and Retirement Survey, shows that over 10 million healthy older adults with no caregiving responsibilities did not work or volunteer in 2004. About half of these able seniors are under age 75 and 9 out of 10 have prior work experience. Given this untapped potential, shortages of volunteers and workers should prompt employers and nonprofits to court this talent.


Introduction

Staying engaged in work and formal volunteer activities at older ages significantly benefits the health and well-being of the volunteers themselves, the organizations that count on them, the people served by those organizations, and the economy. Yet, numerous studies show many older adults, especially those in low-income groups, sit out these opportunities. Why isn’t completely clear. Do some older Americans simply prefer to relax and spend time with family, friends, and hobbies after long and sometimes stressful years on the job? Do such personal challenges as poor physical or mental health or limited skills keep them from connecting? Or are opportunities scarce or out of sync with older adults’ preferences?

The answers to these questions have broad and pressing policy implications. In 2008, the oldest baby boomers will start turning 62—the age at which many people retire. Since this cohort is 76 million people strong, the societal and economic payoffs for encouraging boomers to stay engaged could be enormous.

Using data from the 2004 Health and Retirement Study, we estimate the potential for increasing engagement among adults 55 and older. We define engagement as working for pay or volunteering for an organization, and summarize the literature that documents the key benefits of engagement at older ages. We then examine engagement rates among older adults and the characteristics that distinguish the engaged from the unengaged, highlighting income differences. We then estimate which and how many unengaged older adults would most likely benefit from increased engagement opportunities. Finally, we ask how well demand for older workers and volunteers is likely to mesh with supply.

We find enormous potential for increasing the number of engaged older Americans. More than 10 million healthy older adults with no caregiving responsibilities, including 3.6 million lowincome individuals, are now on the sidelines. Over half of these able seniors are under age 75, and 9 out of 10 have worked before. And recent surveys indicate that this larger group is interested in both paid work and volunteer opportunities. Given this untapped potential, shortages of volunteers and workers should prompt employers and nonprofits to court this talent. That said, public policies that boost engagement among interested low-income seniors—who have the most to gain—may also be needed to ensure broad participation.

(End of excerpt. The entire paper is available in PDF format.)



Topics/Tags: | Employment | Nonprofits | Retirement and Older Americans


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