The Right Word To Describe Work For Boomers? Try 'Work'

In a recent survey, we asked Baby Boomer women about their jobs (or lack thereof) and attitudes about work. After decades of thought-leaders predicting that Boomers would reinvent the notion of work as they aged, the working life of Boomers is, in fact, looking a lot like ... the working life of everyone else.

Boomer Work is Full-Time Work

The women who answered our survey had an average age of 57, and 70% of them are currently employed. Defying some idea that aging women are devoting their work life to part-time gigs or non-paying careers, 64% of those who have a job still work full-time.  

Boomers Will Keep Working 

Boomers who currently have jobs also plan to keep them. Asked when they plan to retire, almost two-thirds said it would be after age 65. Only 16% said they thought they could retire before age 63, and a full 30% expect to work past 70.

You Can Call it “Reinvention” ... if You Want

Non-profit groups, publishers and various Boomer “experts” have tried to rename what work means after 50, and I’ve always felt they were off the mark. The women we surveyed seem to agree.

They reacted badly to words like “encore career” and “re-imagine.” A majority did find “reinvention” to be a reasonable description of work after 50, but few of them are actually finding new ways to make a salary. Their responses suggested that what they are reinventing is the way they approach work: They recognize the value from their own 30+ years of professional experience, even if their employers and colleagues don’t. 

Why Isn’t Work Changing for Boomers? 

While age has given women confidence in their own skills, it has also provided the reason they may not be allowed to use those skills in new ways. 

Those who have jobs realize they will grow old in their current jobs (if they are lucky), increasing resentment among younger generations who want them to “get out of the way” – a luxury they cannot begin to afford. 

And those who do not have jobs – 30% of our survey respondents, 75% of whom do want work – believe that the reason they are most likely to remain unemployed is a reason that gets worse with each year, and the one thing they cannot change about their employability: their age.

Seventy-eight percent of respondents called age a liability in getting a job, and 51% called it the primary reason they can’t find work now. (Only 30% blamed the recession more.) Women over 50 feel that employers will invariably hire younger applicants, because they are perceived to have better tech skills, more energy, lower healthcare costs – or just because they’re young.

How can Marketers Help?

Like employers, marketers remain guilty of assuming that women aged 50-70 are getting ready for retirement instead of getting ready for work. Advertising images continue to show most women over 50 as leisure-oriented seniors rather than regular working people. And those images may in turn persuade recruiters and HR professionals that Boomers (and Boomer women in particular) don’t really need a job.

Marketers and policy makers will do better for Boomers and for themselves when they consider women as an essential part of the workforce, not a luxury, an afterthought, or a hobbyist to be indulged. 

And the easiest way to start is by referring to work by people over 50 with a word that describes how Americans of all ages find both meaning and income: work. 

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9 comments about "The Right Word To Describe Work For Boomers? Try 'Work' ".
  1. Matt Thornhill from Boomer Project , April 9, 2012 at 11:29 a.m.
    Stephen: I like you. You are a nice guy. Vibrant Nation is a good site. But this column and the way you represent a survey among your site's visitors as "research" is a disservice to marketers and researchers (like myself). You should have disclosed this survey was among your site visitors (that's my assumption, maybe I'm wrong, but even when I click your link I end up not knowing anything about the methodology -- a sign that this isn't real research but a site visitor survey). The problem is that the casual reader might conclude that your data is representative of all Boomer women ages 50 to 70. It isn't. Also, given the age and current work status of most of your respondents, I'm not surprised they prefer "work" to describe what they are doing. Most of the "encore career" crowd are talking about post-retirement, post-age 65 type of work. Not when you are 57. Perhaps a more fascinating discussion would be about your site visitor's who don't work feeling the main reason they can't find work is their age. Employers cannot discriminate based on age, but there it is. Seems ageism in the workplace is silently accepted. I bet if your site was for African-Americans and they reported they were discriminated based on race, you'd have a story the media would jump on. Who is jumping on the ageism bias story? Why is this discrimination accepted? Sorry to poke you with a stick, but those of us who work hard to do legitimate national research studies on Boomers have to protect our efforts. Please accurately represent your site visitor surveys when writing pieces like this. There's nothing wrong with you polling your readers. Many marketers should be interested in their opinions. Just don't insinuate that this represents a random sample of Boomer women. Matt Thornhill www.boomerproject.com
  2. Brent Green from Brent Green & Associates, Inc. , April 9, 2012 at 12:14 p.m.
    Stephen, like Matt, I believe your survey conclusions deserve some other perspectives, to wit: Six years ago my friend David concluded 35 years in the magazine publishing industry to start a home healthcare agency that his become dominant in his state of residence. My friend Jim was vice president and general manager of a CBS affiliate for 20 years; now, at age 58, he owns a company that helps clients stop smoking. Michelle, an executive with IBM for over 25 years, started a home-based culinary arts school (and is doing quite well). These few friends in my network stand as metaphors for personal and career reinvention. They aren’t merely isolated examples but represent a growing trend: beginning anew in later life. However, as one of the Boomer “experts” who has identified the reinvention zeitgeist – and coincidentally written a book entitled “Generation Reinvention,” I believe that this transformation is more than merely vocational in nature: it’s also a social and cultural realignment. Boomers are reinventing the 50+ life stage to include — but not limited to — a reimagining of third-age careers — for some as matters of personal convenience; for others as matters of survival against the restraining forces of age discrimination. The extent to which this generation “reinvents” the post-50 life stage should correlate with the extent to which we successfully dispatch ageism, discrimination and marginalization, rendering them as culturally acceptable in the future as gender and racial discrimination are today. Reinventing careers is just one part of this journey, but one that clearly has become manifest through dominant company creation in the 55- to 65-age segment, as recently documented in research by the Kauffman Foundation. Brent Green generationreinvention.com
  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , April 9, 2012 at 1:56 p.m.
    People who work at professional occupations with higher incomes have a better chance to reinvent themselves because of their skills and savings. Most of the people who read MediaPost are not part of the major public $50,000 annual income average for a family of 4 who are of the greatest majority. These are the people who have children and parents who need their help and their investments are debt. Although your method may be questioned, I know the women at my Curves are in the same boats as your results. They are not reinventing; they are teaching until they can't anymore for example. And yes, there is a major healthcare insurance costs that predispose employers for eliminating older workers. FB, BT and twits make it worse.
  4. Marti Barletta from The TrendSight Group , April 9, 2012 at 2:02 p.m.
    Excellent post from Stephen Reily on Boomer Women's attitude toward their work... AND excellent Comments by Brent Green and Matt Thornhill. Interestingly, although the three appear to disagree, I think to one extent or another, they're ALL right. (Maybe it's just part of me that tends to assess so-called "facts" in context rather than as black & white truths (a trait that skews a little more female than male). ... And the part of me that has enough experience with research to know that, while anecdotal evidence doesn't "count" in the same way as quantitative data for representing trends in a total population, nonetheless, it can often convey more "truth" by breaking away from quantitative averages, which tend to distort and obscure more than illuminate.
  5. Marti Barletta from The TrendSight Group , April 9, 2012 at 2:06 p.m.
    Whoops - While I was typing, Paula Lynn added ANOTHER excellent post! I think as marketers, sometimes we tend to over-report on "people like us," forgetting that we are just a tiny subset of Americans, and more fortunate than most.
  6. Suzie Mitchell from Mitchellpr.com , April 9, 2012 at 4:16 p.m.
    totally agree. Great article. Thanks, from a 57 year old woman who has been working full time since since graduating college at 21
  7. Robin Donovan from Bozell , April 9, 2012 at 5:41 p.m.
    I don't agree that Stephen's "survey" represents a disservice to anyone. He does not state that his data is representative of all Boomer women - (who would expect to get free results from a survey that is representative of all Boomer women [if you're giving away free research I'd like to get on that list])? Stephen's survey represents some women with an average age of 57, most of whom are employed. He shares this information in the spirit of alerting those with an interest in the reality of female Boomers that an assumption made by thought-leaders, for years, might not have materialized as expected. He also takes the opportunity to warn those who labor to marginalize women "of a certain age" to think twice - which is excellent advice regardless of the topic. Stephen himself is a thought-leader in informing many audiences on the short-sightedness of discounting the 50+ woman. Now that you have the benefit of Stephen's shared insights, you can decide whether or not it would behoove you to conduct a statistically relevant study based on a random sampling of Boomer women - or not.
  8. Steven Threndyle from media tent , April 9, 2012 at 5:52 p.m.
    There was a story that ran in the business section of Canadian newspapers over the weekend. It was called "Five Most Common Mistakes of Mid-Career Forty-Somethings" (or words to that effect...). Two of the five were: 'paying a lot of money to gain certification that might not result in a job' and 'buying a small business or franchise and working far longer hours for less money than before.' Now, granted, money is not everything, but I think many professional women take a far more pragmatic view (perhaps due to life events such as divorce, kids/family with health issues, being happy with what they've got') that they are simply more satisfied with their work than men of that age are, perhaps. As for the age-ism argument, well, taking a few night school courses in your field and hiring a decent lawyer if you don't get a job should hopefully help you win a discrimination case. There should be no excuse for any kind of discrimination at all in the workplace.
  9. Stephen Reily from IMC/Vibrant Nation , April 9, 2012 at 11:58 p.m.
    I'm sorry I've been offline today but delighted to see all the thoughtful commentary from so many people I respect - and some I don't even know. As for Matt's original point, I don't think I've ever misrepresented the research we do at Vibrant Nation, and regular readers of my blog here (and on our site, and on Twitters, etc.) know that we present it as being just what it is - quantitative and qualitative feedback from the women who come to our site, most of whom are women aged 48-68 with higher than average household incomes and education levels. But the point is taken and I will strive to be crystal clear in the future. (I have not, however, even seen formal studies of Boomer women that contradict anything we've learned from the members of Vibrant Nation.) Given what we know about our members, some of the comments seem to miss the real point of my post: it appears that even better-educated and higher-income Boomer women have different ideas about work and retirement than many a Boomer experts expected them to have. And if that's even close to being right, just imagine what's happened to ideas about work among women who are less fortunate. If we're right (and I'd love to have others contribute their own research in addition to their opinions and anecdotal evidence), it means that a generation of expectations about what work would mean at midlife have been upended by the Recession, by the workplace, and by - heaven forbid - women themselves, who will frequently display their own ideas about their lives, whether they are consistent with what male experts have been telling them to say (or thinking they would feel) for so long. Since founding Vibrant Nation I have learned from the voices that gather on our site and respond to our surveys. I believe that this survey is in imporant, and may mean that the many experts who have been forecasting milions of "encore careers" and "reimaginations" that could actually support a real Boomer's life may - like so many forecasters before them - actually be wrong. And I'd love to continue hearing what others think about this. Thanks!