The aging workforce: When is a person too old to work?


I recently read a survey about American workers’ attitudes toward retirement. Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies has conducted surveys about this topic since 1998. The December 2017 survey, titled “Wishful Thinking or Within Reach? Three Generations Prepare for Retirement,” was authored by Catherine Collinson, president of TCRS and a recognized voice on retirement trends.

The survey looked at three generations currently in the workforce: Millennials (born 1979-2000); Generation X (born 1965-1978) and Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964). More than half of the 6,000-plus workers aged 18 years and older surveyed plan to work after retirement. This was consistent across all three generations.

This question on the survey caught my attention: At what age do you consider a person to be too old to work?

More than half said it depends on the person. Perhaps understandably, Boomers were the most likely to say it depends on the person, followed by GenXers, then Millennials. Millennials pegged the age “too old to work” at age 70. Boomers and GenXers both said 75.

I wondered how our community might answer this question, so I reached out to a few professional friends who graciously gave me permission to share their comments and ages. Here are their thoughts:

Cathy Robbins is senior vice president of regional partnerships for El Pomar Foundation.

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“There is more to it than a simple ‘it depends on the person.’ Health, savings and retirement benefits, social networks and community connections are important factors,” she said.

At 69, Cathy shared that having “slayed a few dragons, and having very little left to prove” is a benefit of aging and life experiences.

Jake Eichengreen is a 27-year-old Millennial and executive director of QUAD Innovation Partnership, an initiative of Colorado College, Pikes Peak Community College, UCCS and the Air Force Academy. Jake’s post-collegiate career is all of five years old. Reflecting on his personal relationships, he noted that people older than 70 who are still working — paid or unpaid — seem to be more energetic, lively and generally healthier than their counterparts.

“I don’t think there is a cutoff for being too old to work,” he said. “My grandma is 86 and is still working in her small family business, walks 2 miles a day and is sharp as a whistle.”

That said, he believes benefits come from “professional churn” that brings in new leaders to drive new momentum and progress.

“When people overstay in a position, it’s tempting to dismiss them as too old to work,” he said.

Venkat Reddy is chancellor of UCCS and agreed it depends on the person.

“If you are enjoying the work you are doing and you genuinely feel you are making a difference, you may work longer than you had planned,” he said.

At 56, Venkat feels he has much left to give to UCCS and the community, so he hasn’t given much thought to when he would back off.

Pat Ellis, president and CEO of Silver Key Senior Services is 69. She agrees with the “it depends” concept.

“As we age, some of us are healthy and active, some are not,” she said. “I am fortunate to have a position that I enjoy and is personally meaningful. I’m still learning, am challenged and can fulfill the expectations of the role. When either of those factors change, then it will be time to retire.”

Claire Anderson, is the 35-year-old executive director of Innovations in Aging Collaborative.

“Given that people age differently and have different ideas of what career, retirement and encore careers mean to them, it does depend on the person. However,” she added, “putting a specific age limit on someone’s ability to continue to complete a job is putting a limit on their creativity, dedication and ability to remain interconnected in the civic and social fabric of the community.”

Sara Honn Qualls is the director of the Aging and Gerontology Center at UCCS and a local expert on aging. She, too, agreed the age when one is too old to work is different for everyone.

Sara, 61, said, “I now work for two main reasons: the impact and meaning I gain from the work itself; and enhancing financial security for what may be a long retirement period with no predictability around long-term care costs.”

So, when is a person too old to work? My contacts all agree — it depends!

Finally, another interesting finding from the TCRS survey was that seven in 10 workers say their employers support working past age 65. In Colorado Springs, we call them “Age-Friendly Employers.” If you are an employer interested in becoming more age-friendly to retain the talent of your older workers, please let me know.

BJ Scott, former executive director of Peak Vista Foundation and former CEO of Peak Vista Community Health Systems, can be reached at