News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

August 22, 2010

MARK BENNETT: Americans staying on the job longer than previous generations

TERRE HAUTE — There’s only one Brett Favre in the NFL.

But in the American workplace, there are lots of Brett Favres. The number of workers staying on the job longer than those of previous generations is growing. This year, an estimated 20 percent of the U.S. labor force is made up of people at least 65 years old, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cited by the Denver Post. That’s up from 16.8 percent in 2008, and 15.8 percent in 1985.

Of course, Favre is just 40. (He’ll turn 41 in October.) “A mere pup,” said Martin DeAgostino, associate state director for Indiana AARP. Still, if his National Football League longevity is calculated like dog years, Favre is the George Burns of his profession.

Last week, Favre ended another summer of will-he?-or-won’t-he? by agreeing to return to the Minnesota Vikings this season — his 20th in the NFL. Three other pro quarterbacks played more seasons — George Blanda (26), Earl Morrall (21) and Vinny Testaverde (21). But though Blanda came off the bench to lead the Oakland Raiders in miraculous fashion at age 43 in 1970, most of his last five seasons were spent as a placekicker. Morrall and Testaverde served as fill-ins for younger, injured starters.

Favre, by contrast, put up career-best numbers for Minnesota last season, missing the Super Bowl by one play. Had he made it, Favre would’ve been the oldest man to play quarterback in a Super Bowl, topping John Elway (who was 38) by two years.

Favre’s announcement last week got mixed reviews. Some think he’s tempting fate, and should’ve gone out on a high note after last season. Others say he’s morphed into a prima donna, by dodging the rigors of summer training camp while he waffled on whether to play, leaving the sweat and preparation to his teammates. But a healthy contingent cheer his gumption and are focused on the bottom line — that this graybeard (literally), who became a grandfather in April, is going to line up behind center for the Minnesota Vikings.

In a way, he represents an expanding group of Americans crashing through traditional age barriers in the workplace and society.

“People want to stay involved. People want to have purpose,” DeAgostino said, “and I think it all relates to our power of choice.”

He was referring to the continued overwhelming influence of the massive baby boom generation — the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and ’64. (Favre misses that demographic by five years.) Any trend that unfolds within its large sector forces society to adapt to its needs and whims.

Take TV viewing, for example. The new median age for network audiences is 51, according to Nielsen Co. statistics cited by The Associated Press. In 1991, it was 37 for ABC, 42 for NBC, 45 for CBS and 29 for Fox. As a result, the networks are uncharacteristically shifting their programming and advertising toward older viewers.

The prison system has been rocked by the graying population, too. The number of state and federal prison inmates 55 and older increased 76 percent from 1999 to 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics cited by The AP. The rest of the prison population grew just 18 percent. Caring for elderly inmates costs nearly three times that of younger ones, the American Civil Liberties Union says.

Obviously, lots of older Americans do other things besides watch TV and serve time. Every year, from 1996 to 2007, Americans ages 55 to 64 created new startup businesses at a higher rate than 20- to 34-year-olds, according to U.S. News & World Report. That activity level follows the increase in the number of older Americans staying in the work force.

“There are lots of people who are looking at working well into their 70s and 80s, and employers need to be thinking about that” and how they’re going to prepare for that, said Ellen Miller, executive director of the University of Indianapolis Center for Aging and Community.

The question is, why?

Some might seize on the self-indulgent reputation of baby boomers — the generation that brought America a 50-percent divorce rate, buy-now-save-later mentality and exploding health-care costs — and say they’re living in age denial, insisting that 50 is the new 40, or 60 the new 50, etc., etc. But outside of such skepticism, it’s also clear that with average lifespans increasing thanks to medical advances, Americans simply want to stay involved in their communities, to keep on contributing to society.

Even in older age, baby boomers, again, are greeted with chances to do things their parents could not.

“Many more of us don’t have the back-breaking physical labor that our parents did,” DeAgostino said, “and that certainly plays a role in when we’re ready to retire. Thirty years in a coal mine is certainly more strenuous than 30 years in front of a computer screen.”

On the flipside, millions of baby boomers can’t afford to quit working. Investments and retirement funds took devastating hits in the post-9/11 period of 2001 to 2003 and throughout the recession of 2007 to 2009. More than half of working adults ages 50 to 64 said they may delay retirement, according to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center. Sixteen percent figure they’ll work till they die, because of need, not desire.

“For a lot of people, traditional retirement age — that’s a dream,” DeAgostino said.

The situation varies from state to state. Indiana’s over-55 population may be underutilized.

The state ranked 42nd in the percentage of workers 55 and older employed in management, professional and technical jobs, according to a study by Miller’s Center for Aging and Community. “That is not a good sign,” she said.

That project, labeled “Gray Matters: Opportunities and Challenges for Indiana’s Aging Workforce,” also showed that Indiana ranked 37th in the nation in volunteerism by its over-55 residents, “which is not good,” Miller said. Indiana also ranked 42nd in the number of older workers in high-skilled occupations, 46th in the education level of those folks, and 50th — dead last — in the percentage of older folks returning to college.

Hoosiers can reverse that. It’s never too late, Miller said, to get more education, start exercising or volunteer.

“The idea that people can’t change, can’t learn, can’t be more physically engaged is absolutely false,” she said.

As for Favre, most retirement-age Americans can’t comprehend the $16.5-million salary he’ll receive from the Vikings for playing one year of football. But they might be able to relate to his defiance of ageism.

“Everybody’s writing you off. It just seems like, at 40, the guy’s a has-been,” Favre told The AP. “So, in saying that, it’s motivation for me.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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