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Column: Older workers want flex time, too

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The problem with younger workers today, I’m often told, is that they’re entitled. Today’s 20-somethings expect flexible hours, big raises and short commutes. They assume it’s fine to work from home and want to make friends (gasp) with their co-workers.

Lost in the curmudgeonly fist-shaking about what younger workers want is that older workers want these things, too. Take flexibility. Seventy-seven percent of millennials say flexible work hours would enable them to be more productive, while 50% of millennials and 44% of Generation Z (can we please get these young’uns a better name?) ranked flexibility around hours and location third when choosing a job, after compensation and workplace culture. But this is not unusual: Although millennials want control over their schedules, a PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC report concluded, “so do non- millennials, in equal numbers.”

Now a new National Bureau of Economic Research paper reports survey data from more than 2,000 people in their 50s, 60s and 70s about what they want out of work. Specifically, the researchers looked at what could keep this cohort working longer — something that could have substantial economic benefits given the U.S.’s aging population, slowing population growth and Social Security solvency challenges.

The No. 1 perk older workers want: flexibility. Thirty percent of people would keep working after age 70 if they could have flexible hours, the researchers estimate. Without flexibility that number drops by almost half: Only 17% say they’d work past 70.

The effect is particularly strong among workers who report concerns that their health might prevent them from working as they grow older, suggesting that these folks want the freedom to schedule doctor’s appointments, not tee times.

This jibes with something younger workers have been saying for a while: Flexibility isn’t a perk; it’s a requirement. And not just for people with caregiving responsibilities. It’s for anyone whose own self requires care.

But even if younger and older workers want the same things, what older workers want might matter more, because they often have substantial clout. Many of them have not only the seniority and expertise needed to be taken seriously at work, but also the financial wherewithal to leave jobs that don’t suit them. Among the 72% of older workers who said they planned to keep working after retirement age, the biggest share (29%) said they wanted to continue “for enjoyment,” as opposed to financial need. And while only about half of U.S. households are likely to be able to maintain their standard of living in retirement, the employees who can are likely the same ones companies want most to retain. That’s a fair amount of leverage.

Many older workers consider opting out only as a last resort. It seems they’re not particularly interested in dialing back. According to Pew, 29% of people between 65 and 72 were working or looking for work — the highest percentage in that age cohort in decades.

And part-time work is not particularly appealing. While about 1 in 4 survey respondents said they’d be interested in a part-time job, twice as many said they wanted to go directly from full-time work to full-time retirement. “The option to take part-time jobs, which is often argued to be more suitable for older workers, does not seem to have large effects” on keeping older people in the workforce, the researchers conclude.

Some benefits that might be more persuasive include a 20% raise, shorter commutes, less demanding jobs (both mentally and physically), the option to telecommute and social opportunities at work. Yet none of these has as much appeal as flexibility.

Why is flexibility so powerful? It’s all about autonomy. Flexibility gives employees a measure of control over their time — something that part-time jobs and even 20% raises don’t. Yet only about a third of the full-time workers surveyed said their jobs allowed them flexibility.

That may be one reason many older workers stop working before they want to. A study last year by the Urban League and ProPublica found that 66% of full-time employed 50-somethings experienced what they called an “involuntary job separation.” That included only 28% who were laid off or saw their companies close. Thirty-five percent found themselves out of a job for reasons that flexibility might have ameliorated: Thirteen percent quit due to job dissatisfaction, 8% due to poor health and 1% due to other personal concerns such as a spouse’s illness. Another 13% experienced an unexplained “unexpected retirement,” which is a quirky way of saying that they’d initially told the researchers they weren’t planning to retire, but later did.

Maybe if employers were willing to offer more flexibility, more people would keep working. Given how popular it is with boomers, millennials and everyone in between, it’s perhaps not surprising that employers who have figured out how to accommodate older workers’ needs have reported a pleasant surprise: The flex time they’ve provided is wildly popular with workers of all ages.

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