Embracing Older Women in the Workplace

By Florence Shen and Brendan Birth

There will always be competition for jobs. But, there doesn’t need to be ageism and a perceived generational divide when dealing with employment.

In order to build sustained long term prosperity for the United States of America, we need to embrace the skills, talents and abilities of older women. Ageist misconceptions and bias may cloud our vision, but the economics and demographics paint a compelling picture—economic growth depends on our ability to create and support vibrant multigenerational workplaces.

In today’s workplace, older women often lose out, usually to younger counterparts. Here’s why this issue is so important:

  • Now and in the future, there’s a shortage of skilled workers.
  • Older Women in the workplace means additional spending power for the society at large. Conversely, older women who wish to work and can’t represent an increasing cost to America’s safety net. When employed, they contribute to the safety net as opposed to using it.
  • Employed older women benefit employers. They don’t generally seek the same level of employee benefits yet they contribute reliability and savvy to the workplace. Older workers often improve the bottom line.
  • Discrimination against older women affects both their physical health and their emotional health. Ultimately, taxpayers will foot the bill for unnecessarily increased medical costs.
  • Older women are a sophisticated workforce. If their talents and contributions are not used, we’re wasting the longevity dividend—now and in the future.

Employed Older People Keep Jobs in America

Nearly two-thirds of the largest corporations (those over 25,000 employees) have identified the need for a larger and more skilled workforce to offset the anticipated loss of older workers. If older women have increased opportunities to remain productive, there’s a good chance this trajectory can be adjusted. Their accumulated decades of skills, reliability and experience count for much. These positive traits offset the worry that older persons are not as technologically advanced as their younger counterparts.

Although recent unemployment numbers show lessened concern, in reality, there is a looming work shortage. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2008 “Report of the Taskforce on the Aging of the American Workforce,” (PDF) this comes as a result of baby boomers retiring over the next few years. This problem won’t be fixed by an influx of workers graduating from college, because there just won’t be enough of them. Instead of seeking external migration, why not nurture the resources already available? Namely, older women in the workplace.

Boomers, many of whom would otherwise be retired, can help fill that worker shortage. But, our mindset has to be open to accommodate them if this nation expects to effectively confront the looming work shortage. Discrimination against older women (or, for that matter, encouraging retirement too early) comes at the detriment of addressing this pressing issue.

Exclusion of Older Women Hurts the Economy

Inclusion is a win/win/win for economic growth, for business and for the individual. It’s axiomatic. People with jobs, especially well-paying ones, improve the economy. Well-earned money by older women is spent for necessities, recreation, and family. This logic does not discriminate by age or gender. More specifically, robust employment of older women is a critical component of poverty eradication in America.

When the feminist movement of the 1970’s enabled millions of women to dramatically increase their participation in the workplace, some feared that this would disadvantage men. In fact, the increased buying power of women created many new jobs and businesses and increased the economy. So, including older workers is key to growing the market. Moreover, employers need a diverse workforce to sell effectively to a diverse population. Older women are one of the fastest growing segments of the population and need to be included in the workforce as well.

Likewise, an increased number of older women in the workplace would put more money into the American economy and reduce reliance on public benefit programs. If these people get income from Social Security only, spending power is reduced. As older women remain in the workplace, there will be changes for the better.

The issue of spending power is especially important as women lag behind men. The well-documented gender wage gap actually gets worse as women and men get older and further into their careers.

Benefitting both the national economy and the individual, reducing ageist hiring practices has the possibility of women regaining spending power which increases overall American prosperity and reduces the likelihood of dependency.

Older Women Save Money for Employers

Yes, you read that correctly. Older women save money for employers. How could this be? Older workers need and demand fewer employee benefits than their younger counterparts.

According to a U.S News and World Report article: “Upwards of two-thirds of Gen Y and Gen X employees want more help from employers in providing benefits that better meet their needs.”

In other words, if employers are to meet the demands of younger workers, they would need to increase the variety and dollar value of benefits. This, in turn, hurts employers’ bottom lines and their available capital to expand existing businesses, open new shops, and do other things to help the economic viability of an area or of the nation.

In contrast, only 31% of older people seek increased benefits. These older workers are less demanding. Consequently, employers can put money into the bottom line and into growing their businesses.

This seems to go against prevailing wisdom that older workers are expensive because of health crises and concomitant loss of hours. We must remember a) all people have health crises and illness, and b) although current law requires that if someone is eligible for Medicare, the employer’s health insurance has to be used first, Medicare may provide some backup, c) Medicare-eligible women seeking part time employment, flexible arrangements or who work as independent contractors, may find Medicare to be their primary health insurance coverage.

But, why are younger people more demanding of healthcare benefits (and therefore more expensive to employ) than older persons? Younger workers don’t seem willing to count on long established income and medical security programs, such as Social Security and Medicare. Often, they believe that Social Security may become insolvent and won’t be available for them as they age. In spite of some trepidation, older women in the workforce have greater confidence that they will have access to such institutions essential to the stability and prosperity of the United States.

Discrimination Against Older Women Drains American Health Care Dollars

Discrimination against older women in the workplace negatively affects health outcomes. This has negative consequences for the individual as well as for our society.

  1. Older women needing employment but not hired due to their age are at higher risk of hunger and other negative health effects of poverty and marginalization.
  2. The deleterious health effects of exclusion, invisibility and discrimination often result in lack of self-esteem and other related physical and emotional manifestations. The negative financial consequences add another layer of stress and often result in poorer health conditions.
  3. Keeping productive helps one remain healthy. Being employed and generating income is one important means to do so. With fewer or no opportunities to find well-paid employment, older women in difficult economic circumstances find that preventable hopelessness and ill health reign. With inadequate opportunity to be productive, health costs soar, particularly for employable older women.
  4. When subtle or overt ageism results in “forced” retirement, it is particularly tough on older women. Often, for years when Medicare is not available, unnecessary increased costs arise and contribute to emotional, physical and financial decline. Delayed health care can have tragic results.

We suspect that you’ve seen instances where women who retire too soon become ill, and not due to pre-existing conditions. From the perspective of the individual, the “bottom line” and the national economy, reducing ageist hiring practices and providing increasing flexibility in the workplace can be one effective response to improving health outcomes as well as reducing overall health care expenditures.

Accumulated Skills, Wisdom and Reliability Count

As longevity increases, so does the need for talented workers to serve the innumerable marketplaces of our economy. Older women’s skills and experience are essential to a growing US economy. In a recent survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, older people, including older women, are generally believed by employers to possess more advanced communication and technical skills than the younger generations do; with their abundant experience, older employees are also given much credit for their professionalism, work ethic, critical thinking and problem solving skills, when compared to their younger counterparts.

Not only are skills irreplaceable, so is the experience and integrity of older women. As we progress from a youth-focused world to one where longevity is the norm, the intergenerational transfer of skills and knowledge through the workplace must be encouraged. Effectively managed, training costs can be reduced, and transitions can be improved. Once again, we are working toward the improvement of the bottom line.


To ensure full utilization of existing and valuable employment resources for our growing national economy, previously overlooked sectors must be included. For instance, including older women as a growing sector of available workers benefits employers as well as the national economy, overall society and individuals. Thinking strategically, boomers, because of their numbers, are having an outsized impact on the economy. Employers are slow to pick up on this opportunity, in part due to ageism, but also due to their lack of understanding of this fast growing cohort. We’ve seen similar economic segment development focus on Hispanic, African American, LGBT and other markets.

Decades ago, Gray Panthers was founded on precisely this issue. Directly confronting the ageist policy of mandatory retirement, Maggie Kuhn was among the first activists to demand recognition for the rights and abilities of older persons in the workplace.

But her work is not finished. It is now our work. Today, ageism continues to exist, but often it’s subtle and remains insidious. This discrimination continues to pass over older women for younger without basis. As the United States becomes increasingly older and for its labor force to continue to remain strong, the blight of ageism must be acknowledged, addressed and resolved for the continued economic and social prosperity of our country.

Florence Shen and Brendan Birth are summer interns with the Gray Panthers, NYC Network. Florence is a rising sophomore at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, and Brendan is a rising senior at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.