Growing share of New London County workers over 65 remain in workforce

In 1998, 14 percent of Connecticut's workforce was over age 54, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That figure rose to 20 percent by 2008, and now it's at 27 percent.

Given that baby boomers are now between the ages of 55 and 73, it's not surprising that the share of people over 54 is growing in workplaces.

But within groups of people ages 65-74 and 75+, the share of people participating in the workforce also is on the rise. The newly released American Community Survey five-year estimates show that the workforce participation rate for people 65 and older in New London County rose from 36.7 percent in 2009-13 to 41 percent in 2014-18.

That's a larger increase than for Connecticut overall, and the nationwide workforce participation rate for senior citizens rose from 31.1 to 32.3 percent during this time.

Every year between Christmas and New Year's Day, The Day runs a series of profiles on people or places under a different theme, and this data shaped our decision to make the series this year about seniors in the workforce — people either working past what was once considered standard retirement age, or returning to the workforce after retirement.

After publishing a holiday series two years ago about millennials in Connecticut, it seemed appropriate to swing to the other end of the age spectrum in the workforce (with apologies to the oft-neglected members of Generation X).

"Sometimes it's because people want to stay in the workforce, and sometimes it's because people have to stay in the workforce," AARP Connecticut State Director Nora Duncan said. The organization believes people should be able to work as long as they choose, but Duncan sees a lot of stereotypes, especially when it comes to technology.

She sees job ads seeking "digital natives," or people who grew up with computers, and the Society of Human Resource Management discourages this kind of language. Duncan also would like to see a bill passed in Connecticut that prohibits employers from asking date of birth or graduation date on job applications.

The struggles many Connecticut manufacturers face in finding skilled workers are exacerbated by a low unemployment rate and net outward migration. Duncan said she hasn't heard of employers offering incentives to older workers to combat this in Connecticut, but she has heard of tax incentives in New Hampshire and Vermont for people to stay and work.

Age breakdown in Connecticut's workforce varies by sector

Using census data for the third quarter of 2018, state Department of Labor economist Matthew Krzyzek noted in July that the makeup of people over age 54 ranges from 15.5 percent in accommodation and food services to 40.7 percent in mining, quarrying and extraction. Other industries that skew older are manufacturing and utilities.

Mark Hill, chief operating officer of the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, said the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative has seen a fair number of older workers coming back into the workforce.

"Just like the other people in our program, they've done a great job, and it shows that people can launch a new career at any age," Hill said.

In its Restaurant Industry 2030 report released last month, the National Restaurant Association noted in its "10 Sure Things in 2030" that restaurants a decade from now will employ a different demographic, with the workforce including more older Americans.

The report notes that 6.1 million more people 65 and older are expected to be in the labor force by 2028, while the number of 16- to 24-year-olds drops by 1.2 million.

Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said the flexibility of the restaurant industry can be appealing for people who are retired but "don't want to sit at home."

Why are people working later?

Through our CuriousCT platform, we asked readers to share why they continue to work past retirement age or why they have returned to the workforce, and got about 20 responses. A few of the respondents are people you'll hear about in this series.

Many are working part-time, and most expressed an enjoyment for working. We also realize that people may be more likely to respond to a newspaper prompt if they genuinely want to be working than if they're working because they're financially strapped.

A 73-year-old production/procurement manager for Radiation Protection Systems in Groton said he continues to work full-time because he enjoys it and is inspired by the younger people who work with him. A 66-year-old woman works part-time as an X-ray technologist to supplement her income, retain her benefits and remain engaged with friends. A 77-year-old referred to a "traditional retirement" in front of the TV as a "death sentence." One woman said she continues to work in Ledyard Public Schools, where she is now in her 51st year, because it fills her with joy.

A 2018 Gallup poll found that Americans expect to retire at age 66, up from 63 in 2002, but the average retirement age has been 61 since 2011. The Day heard from two 64-year-olds working in the region.

Howard, a lifelong New London resident who didn't want his last name used, was unemployed for 54 weeks after getting laid off from work at a call center. He then entered Platform to Employment, a five-week program through The WorkPlace, and found that callbacks and interviews increased significantly after.

In June, he started his current job selling tickets, answering the phone and handling freight for Greyhound in New London. Howard found the job on Craigslist, a place he wouldn't have thought to look were it not for Platform to Employment.

While Howard said he is not in a financial place to retire, he also doesn't think he would want to, saying that "being unemployed is boring" and he wants to have something to do during the day. Given the cost of living in Connecticut, he's not surprised that people are continuing to work later in life.

Uncasville resident Paul Bowles has spent 34 of his 64 years working at Pfizer, where he is now part of the process chemistry group.

He typically sees Pfizer colleagues retire between ages 50 and 60, and Bowles said he is financially able to retire at any time, but he enjoys his work and is excited about the "state-of-the-art" direction in which Pfizer is going. Bowles said he has never experienced ageism in the workplace, and said there is a wide span of ages in his group.

"Everyone brings their own unique view of their aspect of the work, and I learn from the younger people because they have insights and ways of looking at things that are different from me," he said, "and I certainly share with them the experience and knowledge and wisdom that I've gained over the years that will inform their current academic knowledge."

e.moser@theday.com

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