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As is true in the United States and in much of the world, Canada’s population and work force are getting older. According to the 2021 census, more than a fifth (22 per cent) were aged between 55 and 64 – an all-time high.

If at one time those older workers were looking forward to gold watches, pensions and rounds of golf, those days are gone. Whether it is to keep themselves active or to make up for the inflation-eroded value of their portfolios, many are not looking to retire early, or perhaps at all.

But this is presumably good in a world where employers frequently bemoan the lack of labour. Going forward, the work force will only get older and there are legitimate reasons to keep employees earning – for their financial well-being, but also because many industries will continue to need their contributions.

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But in realistic terms, people look for different kinds of jobs as they age, with those that are less physically taxing and more flexible presumably the most in demand. Are jobs age-friendly enough to keep older workers interested?

In a September working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists Daron Acemoglu, Nicolaj Sondergaard Muhlbach and Andrew J. Scott set out to find out whether that has been the case in the U.S. over the past few decades. To do so, they constructed an “Age-Friendly Job Index” that looked at the occupational characteristics of 873 jobs in terms of their attractiveness to older workers.

Examining each job for a host of characteristics including flexibility, telecommuting, physical job demands, pace of work, autonomy at work and paid time off, the NBER study came to the conclusion that over the past three decades, work in general has indeed become more age-friendly. That varied a bit by industry, with jobs in the finance and retail industries being the most age-friendly and including occupations such as insurance adjusters, financial managers and proofreaders. The least age-friendly jobs tended to be in manufacturing, agricultural and construction and involve a physical component of work.

Over all, it appears to be good news for those older workers who wanted to keep working – except that the researchers found that while the number of age-friendly jobs had risen, those jobs were not necessarily being done by older workers. Instead, they found that the jobs were disproportionately filled by women and college graduates.

This is not particularly surprising, given that the attributes that are deemed to make a job friendly to an older worker, such as the ability to telecommute, are also favourable to many other workers as well. Although the study did not quantify whether downright ageism was causing older workers to lose out on age-friendly jobs to younger ones, it did note that employers tend to prefer “high-productivity workers” and that, rightly or wrongly, younger college graduates were viewed as being in that category.

So if older workers have not grabbed up the age-friendly jobs, where are they working? Some of those workers who do have the characteristics that the market is looking for (including a postsecondary education) have been able to stay in the work force and are indeed employed at those age-friendly jobs, which are presumably in the occupations they have been in throughout their careers.

Others, and in particular men without a postsecondary education, might continue to be employed but they are not working in jobs that could be called age-friendly. Instead, they are disproportionately employed in old-economy sectors such as manufacturing and in conditions that in general are physically demanding.

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Looking to Canada’s future of work, a few conclusions can be reached. The first is that the fact that jobs in general are getting more age-friendly is positive since it suggests that such jobs are getting better. Indeed, as well as their other positive characteristics, the NBER study found that the age-friendly jobs were the ones that paid the best and were also the ones where wages were rising the most quickly.

The flip-side, though, is that there are reasons to believe that older workers are not necessarily getting access to those jobs. If that is happening because they are actually less productive, then that should be addressed in some way by investments in retraining and reskilling whether by employers, government or the workers themselves. If, however, they actually are as productive as younger workers but are simply being shut out of them by ageism, that needs to be remedied.

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