American research

Work ahead of leisure in the US

“Seniors in the United States often fear that they will become ‘invisible’ once they disappear from the workplace,” says the American researcher Elizabeth Fideler, who recently attended the conference “Extending working life: The American experience” in Oslo.

Av Ulf Petter Hellstrøm, 1. oktober 2015

American researcher Elizabeth Fideler (left) and Kari Østerud

American researcher Elizabeth Fideler (left) and Kari Østerud

Mature female workers nearing the traditional age of retirement, which is 66+ in the United States, make up the fastest-growing group in the vast and ever-changing labour market in the world’s largest economy, according to the researcher, followed by male workers in the same age group. Her assertions are backed up by official figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The tough American job marketFideler and her American colleagues tell of developments in the United States that are at the same time both similar to European trends and also quite different. Americans have experience with a labour market where frequent job changes are far more common and there is a greater income gap than we have traditionally seen in Europe, including in Scandinavia. Neither is the social safety net in the US as robust as in many European countries. A special conferenceAmerican researchers presented their analyses of trends regarding seniors at a special conference that primarily focused on comparisons of conditions in the US and in Scandinavia, which was organised by the Centre for Senior Policy in Oslo.In recent years, Fideler has become known for having conducted a number of in-depth interviews with seniors. “An important trend in the US labour market is that more and more seniors are choosing to earn an income even when they could really take their pension,” the researcher says.“Over the next five or six years, it is expected that at least a quarter of the older workers in this category will choose to remain in employment. We are not quite there yet, but we’re on our way,” says Fideler.“And the results of your studies?”“When I interviewed many female seniors, I expected that money would be the determining factor, especially in the wake of the major financial crisis in the US. Rather, the key to working longer than the retirement age is being in good health and having a good education. And they need to like their job,” says Fideler.“Many are looking to give something back to their profession, or to patients, to their students, and the like,” she adds.Financial pressure“But how big a role does money actually play when American seniors are deciding whether to continue to earn an income or not?”“As the so-called baby boomers approach these decisions, many say that they never want to retire. In reality, they are under considerable pressure to continue working from a number of quarters, including the American financial services industry. There are countless analyses and reports in the US concluding that many seniors will not be able to afford their usual standard of living if they retire too early.” “What do the women say?”“Many of them say that they had to work extremely hard to get where they are. And they explain that their job gives them a form of self-worth, a feeling that they are contributing through performing tasks that they master, that they are good at. ‘It strengthens my self-image,’ say the women. It is part of the process of gaining recognition,” says Fideler.“In the book, women say that they don’t want to be invisible. That’s an important part of the picture. For men, you see something similar, but it is not as widespread.” Work is identity“They ask: If I retire, who am I, what will I do? One’s job is an important part of one’s identity for many,” says Fideler. “In the US, you also have the phenomenon of ‘un-retiring’. You retire, get bored and go back to work. Maybe in another industry and with a lower salary. But still, many want to know that they are still useful,” says Fideler. 73 years oldThe American researcher is 73 years old and has a doctorate from Harvard. She herself is an example of the fact that age limits are more flexible in the US than in many other countries. She tells a story that many academics and other resourceful experts or professionals will also recognise: when she reached her mid-60s, her research project in education, which had been funded by the federal government in Washington, DC, expired. But Fideler felt she had more to give, and threw herself into a special project focusing on older workers. This was at the end of the financial crisis in the US, which began in 2007 and was at its most intense until the end of 2009. And she continues to conduct research and give lectures.Women Still at WorkOne of Fideler’s main conclusions is that the desire to work is significant among many resourceful seniors in the United States. Her work has also led to two books: Men Still at Work and Women Still at Work, which have received considerable attention in the United States.She looked at women in her own age group and distributed an online survey to a selection of working women, which was by no means accidental. It mainly focused on quite resourceful women who, like herself, told of a high degree of job satisfaction and freedom in the workplace. The differences between them were still considerable, but the results of the study cannot be compared with the large surveys of randomly selected people regularly used as political opinion polls, for example, both in the US and in Norway. The study used a sampling method known as snowball sampling, where the recipients forwarded the survey on to their contacts. She received 155 completed questionnaires from women between the ages of 60 and 84. Thirty-four of them took part in a new round of in-depth interviews. Later, she followed the same procedure for male seniors up to the age of 93. Fideler believes that many resourceful Americans will prolong their careers in the coming decades. “Consider this: when you meet people, they always ask, ‘What do you do?’ And the answer is not as easy when you are no longer working,” says the researcher, who is part of the world-renowned academic environment in the Boston region.Social SecurityThe backbone for workers in the lower and middle income groups in the United States is still the national social welfare scheme Social Security. To be entitled to Social Security benefits after a long working life, wage-earners must currently make monthly contributions until they are between 66 and 67 years of age. The average monthly benefit payment is currently just over USD 1,300, or just over NOK 10,500. The maximum limit is about double that, according to US media.Employees who are also covered by a private pension plan are better off, naturally. Also in the United States, the trend is to move away from defined benefits pension schemes, which guarantee employees a certain pension compared to their salary level at the end of their working life, to defined contribution schemes. Personal savings come in addition, but macroeconomists say that saving in the US has been extremely low for a number of years.