A curious pattern has emerged through Canada’s recession and rocky recovery: Employment levels have surged among older women.
A look behind Canada’s net employment gains shows how unevenly they have been distributed in the labour force. Virtually all the increases through and since the recession have been among workers aged 55 or older, particularly women.
At 72, Sherry Baker is the face of this striking shift. The Langley, B.C.-based entrepreneur runs a website, matching older workers to employers, called 55 Plus Pros, and is also a strategic consultant. She volunteers, keeps track of her six grandchildren on Facebook and Skype, exercises regularly, is part of a theatre group, and sits on more than half-a-dozen boards.
She works “24/7,” partly of necessity due to a lack of pension, but also because she has the energy and wants to stay mentally active. “It’s financial need. But also I live by myself and a lot of it is human contact, and the challenge. The jobs certainly keep my brain working.”
A range of factors – from rising life expectancy to mounting financial needs and a willingness among employers to hire these experienced workers – is driving the quiet shift. The result is altering the very complexion of Canada’s work force, and carries a profound impact on everyone from employers and workers to governments and social services.
Numbers compiled by Statistics Canada for The Globe and Mail show just how stark the trend is. Employment levels have soared 16.4 per cent among older women since the fall of 2008, at the onset of the recession. By comparison, they’ve fallen 0.4 per cent among core-aged (25 to 54) workers.
The employment rate – or the number of people employed as a percentage of the total population – among older women has risen 1.6 percentage points since the recession, is little changed for older men and has fallen for all other age groups.
Just as baby boomers have reshaped society through every stage of their lives, so too are they transforming the notion of retirement – or un-retirement. The life expectancy of boomers has climbed by two years every decade and older Canadians are healthier than ever. At the same time, many women, who may have divorced, lost a spouse, or have dependent family members, have little choice but to work.
Both a preference to keep working and financial need are behind the change. A plethora of studies this year – including a Royal Bank of Canada survey last spring – suggest squeezed finances are playing a growing role as older Canadians grapple with falling stock portfolios, more family members to support and higher debt levels.
The success of older women in landing jobs mirrors changes in the labour market. The industries with the biggest job gains in Canada in recent years – health care, government, social services – have been precisely where older women’s employment growth is. At the same time, goods-producing industries that typically employ more men, such as manufacturing and forestry, have been shedding jobs.
By sector, job gains among older women have occurred entirely on the services side of the economy since the recession – in finance, professional services, health care and retail.
By geography, the increases have been concentrated in the east and the west – with the biggest percentage gains in Newfoundland and Labrador, British Columbia and Alberta.
Janice Kussner, partner in executive search practice at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions, has witnessed the surge of older women workers first hand. She says more women are turning to the services side of the economy – particularly to not-for-profits and the public sector – for jobs “that have a cause or mission or mandate that resonates.”
And many more are starting their own businesses. “There’s no question the entrepreneurship thing is big,” she says, adding that self-employment also provides flexibility in work hours.
This cohort of older women is different from generations past in that they are better educated and more likely to have work experience, said Neil Crawford, principal and leader of the Best Employers in Canada for human resources consultant Aon Hewitt. Employers are increasingly viewing older women as an untapped source of labour, able to fill in gaps, for example, when younger workers take parental leave.
The bulge in older workers promises to reshape the work force. One-in-six employed Canadians was an older worker in 2009, compared with one in 10 in 2000, and that share will grow, an October report by the National Seniors Council predicts.
By 2036, the proportion of the labour force that will be 55 and over is expected to be 18.7 per cent – compared with 16 per cent in 2009.
The shift will have a major impact on employers and how they manage their workers – from the need to allow more part-time work, to improving lighting, making work spaces more accessible and introducing regular health checks in the workplace.
“It’s dramatic,” said David Foot, a prominent demographer and professor emeritus of economics at the University of Toronto. “Whenever the front edge of the boomers do certain things, it’s had a huge impact on our society. And this is the latest one.”