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The silver-collar economy

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Vita Needle is an extreme example, but it's just one of many employers who in varying ways have been learning to value workers on the mature end of the spectrum.

The rise of the older worker is cast sometimes as a problematic feature of the current job climate: a "gray ceiling" in which the lingering of older employees leaves scant opportunity for younger workers to be hired, developed, and promoted. The challenge is genuine, as recent headlines about a "lost" generation of youth imply.

But take a larger and longer view, and the picture may be much more positive. There's the potential for ample demand for younger and older workers alike. Many seniors, for their part, are engaged in a righteous rebellion against artificial limits – against the notion that hitting 65 means one's contributions to society are largely in the rearview mirror.

The trend, while not new, is still in its early stages and promises to have long-term significance. Life spans have been expanding, and attitudes about how to live during the so-called golden years have been evolving toward less emphasis on leisure and more on usefulness.

It's also a story about the financial imperative facing individuals and nations, which is intertwined with the global economy's current aura of debt crisis. Fiscal pressures in nations like Japan, Italy, and the US are linked closely to the demographics of retirement, with a wave of age 60-plus people who will either have to support themselves or be supported by taxpayers.

The rise of the gray workforce shouldn't be exaggerated. The concept of retirement isn't being phased out entirely. But elderly people are increasingly taking on jobs, either in the form of part-time employment, seasonal work, or brief encore careers.

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