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Uncle Sam Wants Go Back to Work
by Marika Stone

As you probably know, Social Security was created to encourage older workers to leave the labor force to make room for younger workers. Over time, Social Security became an icon of what it meant to be older. It was a given that at age 65, one "retired" from paid work in order to be eligible for benefits. At the same time, it was becoming clear that Social Security benefits alone would not be sufficient to sustain any but the most frugal lifestyle without some other sources of income. Investment advice directed at our age group has become a growth industry, nearly all of it ignoring the obvious: the majority of people today say they plan for a post-career life that includes paid work of some kind.

Today, with labor shortages looming as a small group of so-called Gen-Xers hit maturity, it may well become your civic duty to remain in or return to the work force. According to the Census Bureau, the number of 20 to 34 year olds in the U.S. has declined by 6 million over the last decade, while the number of people over 50 has increased by 12 million. Uncle Sam apparently wants you badly enough that in March this year, the House voted to give workers 62 and older their Social Security benefits no matter what they earn.

Experience, stability and our work ethic make those of us 50 and older much in demand. According to John S. Morgan, author of "Getting a Job After 50," insurance company data shows that older workers use less sick leave on average than younger workers, are less likely to quit, and are not only as ambitious as younger workers, but tend to have more realistic goals. Could we look forward to a day when -- like the high level executives being recruited to dream jobs -- we are able to negotiate more favorable terms of employment: a greater choice in projects; more flexible hours; a reduction in travel; free yoga/meditation/wellness classes and other perks?

Not only are we statistically healthier than younger workers are, we apparently have stamina to spare. Take a look at the slim margins in the New York Marathon between the winners in the youngest group, Robert Quinn, age 19, at 2:56:15, and the winner of the 65-69 group, Manuel Rosales, age 65, at 2:57:39. Similarly in the women's results, Anna Fyodorova, age 19, the leader in her group at 3:26:20, was beaten by Anna Thornhill, age 60, at 3:25:39.

Things have changed in the perception of work and retirement as well. If you find yourself debating this point with anyone, direct them to the growing collection of True Stories of people who are rejecting concepts their parents held sacred: Not only have these people "retired retirement," they are redefining what work is, what LIFE is, at 50, 60, and older.

Experts are documenting this anecdotal evidence Big Time. A recent study, "Second Wind: Workers, Retirement and Social Security", was published by Rutgers University's Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. According to the executive summary: "Most workers see their 'retirement' not as a time for leisure and travel, but as an opportunity to do fulfilling work, and find avocation in what they do."

Last week, the New Jersey Foundation for Aging based in Trenton sponsored a one-day conference called "Solving Labor Force Shortages: Looking to Mature Workers as Untapped Resources in a Full Employment Economy." Keynote speaker, Dr. Herb Greenberg, CEO of Caliper, Inc. which consults with organizations in hiring, developing and managing people more effectively, listed older workers as one of the key resources employers ignore at their peril.

"Not tapping the older worker," he said, "is like walking over a gold mine without digging for the gold." We need to ask workers the right questions. Not "What have you done?" but, "What are your core strengths as they relate to what is needed for the job?" "Unretired" himself, Greenberg sees this "reservoir of untapped potential" as both a business opportunity and a societal good, and dismisses retirement as a recipe for boredom, illness and even premature death because people may succumb to the notion that they "have no purpose to keep them going."