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Innovative Programs Aim to Keep Seniors as Productive Workers

Work doesn't need to end with retirement.

For proof, consider the 800 older workers scattered across the country at 29 offices of the Environmental Protection Agency. As participants in the agency's Senior Environmental Employment Program, they handle a variety of assignments and serve as mentors to younger employees. Their average age is 67, with more than 200 in their 70s and 80s.

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"This program has changed the EPA forever," says Larry Anderson, president of the National Older Worker Career Center in Washington. "They have learned as an agency how age diversity has enriched their work force."

Mr. Anderson tells of an older man who worked at the Great Lakes National Water Program in Chicago. Young employees called him "Pop" and teased him that he was around when the Great Lakes were formed. "He knew how the Great Lakes got polluted," says Anderson. "He was an enormous asset in providing background information to the EPA as they negotiated treaties with the Canadian government. His reward was having young civil servants come to him with tough questions that he knew the answers to."

The EPA senior program, established 21 years ago, is now under the direction of the National Older Worker Career Center. Launched in September, the center will also help other federal agencies and large corporations. It will develop flexible work schedules, job sharing, and phased retirement programs that enable people over 55 to choose job options that suit them.

Anderson hopes efforts like this will promote "a quiet social revolution" in which employers reconsider the value of older workers.

By 2010, he explains, the entire United States will look demographically like Florida today. "We're going to have to find ways to keep people employed. Otherwise, every working younger person will be supporting three to four older persons who are healthy and able to work but are drawing Social Security and Medicare. That just doesn't work."

Helen Dennis, a lecturer at the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California, also uses the word "revolutionary" to describe the shifting patterns she sees.

"The very concept of retirement has changed," says Ms. Dennis, who has given courses on retirement education to 6,000 corporate employees. As people switch jobs more often, she explains, long-term employment may last only 10 years. "We may begin to look at retirement as just a career change where you get some kind of pension return. Then you move on to another job or career. Your first retirement may be just one in a series of work-life changes."

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Even so, finding rewarding work after retirement often remains difficult.

"If you're thinking about retiring, think very carefully," says Martin Sicker, a board member of the National Older Workers Career Center. "You may never be able to reenter the work force, except on terms you're not happy with - in an entry-level job."

For those wanting to remain employable in their later years, Dennis emphasizes a "major responsibility" - keeping up technical skills. "Be highly competitive," she urges. "Be able to work in environments that emphasize teams. Be flexible, highly adaptable, and able to change as the environment requires."

Anderson believes that employers want to do the right thing in hiring retired people. But, he says, "They need to be shown that employing older workers does not have a negative impact on the bottom line. We can show it has a quite positive impact."

Many employers, he says, cling to the myth that older people who remain on the job get sick more often and raise insurance costs.

Yet among 800 older workers with an average age of 67 who were covered under a health insurance program over a 10-year period, the loss claims and use of prescription-drug cards proved to be no different than for a similar number of people of all age groups.

"It's simple proof that people who are working remain healthy," says Anderson.

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