Five Myths About Landing a Good Job Later in Life

There’s a stereotypical view of job opportunities for older workers, and it’s not pretty. It goes something like this. If you’re past 50 and thinking of a career switch, forget it. The opportunities for older workers in the new economy are pretty much nonexistent. And you’re in even worse shape if you’re in your 50s or 60s and retired but want to get back into the workforce in a job that is both challenging and financially rewarding. The only spots available are low-skilled and low-paying—whether that’s burger flipper, Wal-Mart greeter or Uber driver.

Boy, have a lot of people have been misinformed.

The numbers make it clear that the nightmare scenario simply isn’t true. The 55-and-older crowd is now the only age group with a rising labor-force participation rate, even as age discrimination remains a problem for many older job seekers. Workers age 50 or older now comprise 33.4% of the U.S. labor force, up from 25% in 2002. And more than 60% of workers age 65 or older now hold full-time positions, up from 44% in 1995.

In addition, a large part of the long-term increase in employment growth has come from skilled jobs in professional-services industries, according to a 2013 academic paper. Another study found that from 1996 to 2012, just 1.4% of job seekers in their early to mid 50s landed in “old person” occupations—typically “low-paying, low-status” jobs in which older hires outnumber younger hires by at least 2 to 1.

“These are good jobs,” says Nicole Maestas, an economist and associate professor of health-care policy at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the 2013 study. Moreover, she adds, older workers with experience and education “are competitive for these jobs, especially with their greater work experience.”

Still, the myths persist despite all the evidence to the contrary. Here are five prevalent misconceptions about working in later life—along with recent research that dispels those misconceptions.

Myth 1: I’m not going to find a good job.

REALITY: Baby boomers are getting jobs with better pay, status and working conditions than prior generations of older workers.

Older workers are benefiting from a number of trends—in the economy, the workforce and their own profile. For one thing, many boomers are living longer and staying healthier than prior generations. So they’re able to take on more demanding work and are better able to keep pace with younger peers.

Moreover, as the U.S. economy shifts from manufacturing to services, it’s creating more positions in which cognitive skills matter more than physical ability. That means more opportunities for older workers.

“We have more older-worker-friendly jobs now than we used to,” says David Powell, an economist at the nonprofit policy-research organization Rand Corp. and a co-author of the 2013 study with Prof. Maestas.

Then there’s a critical factor that may give older workers a leg up on younger ones: experience. At a time when many employers are grumbling about a shortage of skilled workers, older Americans have much more work experience than younger ones and may even seem like better prospects to many employers.

“The labor-demand study simply shows that when there is a shortage of skilled workers, older workers get jobs,” says Prof. Maestas.

Baby boomers are also better educated than previous generations of older workers, making them much better able to compete for positions. According to Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, in 1990, 65-year-olds had an average of 11.5 years of schooling, or 1.8 years less than the 13.3-year average for 25-year-olds.

By 2010, Prof. Maestas calculates, older adults had 12.6 years of education, on average, versus 13.9 years for 25-year-olds. She and a co-author project the 1.3 year gap will shrink to just six months by 2030.

“Increasingly, older workers’ qualifications look almost the same as [those of] their younger counterparts,” says Matthew Rutledge, research economist at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and a co-author of the paper on people in “old person” occupations. In fact, he adds, they “may even look better because they have experience.”

Myth 2: You can’t take time off, or you’ll never get back into the workforce

REALITY: About 40% of people who retire take a break and then return to work, typically within two years.

Those findings come from Prof. Maestas, who used data from the Health and Retirement Study funded by the National Institute on Aging and conducted at the University of Michigan, which has tracked thousands of people over the age of 50 over the past two decades. About 60% of the study participants who took career breaks between 1992 and 2002 moved into new professions, according to Prof. Maestas.

“Many people reboot and do something new,” says Prof. Maestas, who says data from research published in 1990 indicates only 25% of older workers who retired in the 1970s took time off and returned to work.

PHOTO: STEPHEN WEBSTER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. 62% of workers aged 65 and older are full-time, up from 44% in 1995. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. As the U.S. economy shifts from manufacturing to services, it's creating more positions in which cognitive skills matter more than physical ability. That means more opportunities for older workers.

Why the increase? One explanation is that the breaks may not be as harmful to a career as they used to be, given the shift toward service work. “Blue-collar work is typically more demanding and physical skills probably deteriorate faster than the interpersonal and knowledge-based skills that are more prevalent in services and white-collar work,” says U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics research economist Michael Giandrea.

Another surprise from the research into retirees who take breaks and then return to working: Economic necessity doesn’t appear to play a big role in the decision. “It is not the poorest who return to work,” says Prof. Maestas. “It is the better off. It isn’t the lower educated. It is the highest educated. Every way you look at the data, it correlates with choice rather than economic necessity.”

Mr. Giandrea says that many people are interested in the “nonmonetary benefits of continued employment,” including “mental stimulation and continued social networks.” Plus, he adds, “I think it’s the case that many people like their jobs. We think people are revealing what they prefer through their actions. If they are continuing to work in later life, it’s certainly possible that they like their work.”

Still, older workers who take time off should be aware that the odds of becoming re-employed decline with age. According to a biennial survey sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, 73% of 25- to 54-year-olds who lost jobs between 2013 and 2015 that they had held for three or more years were re-employed by January 2016. For 55- to 64-year-olds, in contrast, the figure is 60%.

Myth 3: I’m not going to make as big of a contribution as I did in the past.

REALITY: Older workers can play a more vital role than ever.

When it comes to productivity, most academic studies show little to no relationship between age and job performance, says Harvey Sterns, director of the Institute for Life-Span Development and Gerontology at the University of Akron. Already, that shows that the popular view of older workers as dead wood simply isn’t true. But some research goes even further: In jobs that require experience, these studies show that older adults have a performance edge.

In a study published in 2015, economists at institutions including the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit research organization in Munich, examined the number and severity of errors made by 3,800 workers on a Mercedes-Benz assembly line from 2003 to 2006. The economists determined that over that four-year period, rates of errors by younger workers edged up, while the rates for older workers declined. Moreover, the frequency of severe errors decreased with age.

A new study by some of the same authors looked at a large German insurance company, and found no overall link between age and productivity. But in “more demanding tasks,” says co-author Matthias Weiss, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences Regensburg, productivity rises with age. Experience offsets “physical and cognitive decline in the more demanding tasks,” the study says.

There may be deep neurological factors at play. Academics have found that knowledge and certain types of intelligence continue to develop in ways that can offset age-related declines in the brain’s ability to process new information and reason abstractly. Expertise deepens, which can enhance productivity and creativity. Some go so far as to say that wisdom—defined, in part, as the ability to resolve conflicts by seeing problems from multiple perspectives—flourishes.

Wisdom doesn’t just help basic job performance: It makes older workers into valuable role models for younger employees. Older workers who spend time mentoring, lecturing, consulting, advising and teaching can make a “huge contribution,” says Brian Fetherstonhaugh, chairman and chief executive of digital and direct-marketing agency OgilvyOne Worldwide, and author of “The Long View: Career Strategies to Start Strong, Reach High, and Go Far.”

Older workers, he adds, are in a position to teach “the trickiest things younger workers need to learn, including sound judgment and how to build trust” with colleagues and clients.

Myth 4: The only type of work available to older applicants is part time.

REALITY: Since 1995, the number of people age 65 or older working full time has more than tripled.

That increase compares with just 56% for part-timers in the same age group. In all, 62% of workers 65-plus are now full-time workers, up from 44% in 1995, according to BLS statistics. “The rise in full-time employment among older workers tells us there are opportunities for them,” says Mr. Giandrea.

What’s more, not many part-timers—just 5%—would prefer to work full-time, he says. “Not only has full-time employment grown, but among those who usually work part-time, almost all want to work part time,” he says.

Why the shift to full-time jobs? Once again, the answer may come down to experience. “Older individuals may find that their job skills continue to be valuable in the service and white-collar work that is becoming more prevalent, thereby enabling them to extend their work lives,” Mr. Giandrea says.

Myth 5: The chance to be an entrepreneur has passed me by.

REALITY: Americans in their 50s and 60s make up a growing share of entrepreneurs.

According to the nonprofit Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, individuals between the ages of 55 and 64 represented 24.3% of the entrepreneurs who launched businesses in 2015, up from 14.8% in 1996.

In contrast, despite their reputation for having an entrepreneurial bent, Americans ages 20 to 34 launched 25% of the startups in 2015, down from 34% in 1996%.

The data indicate “the United States might be on the cusp of an entrepreneurship boom—not in spite of an aging population but because of it,” writes Dane Stangler, vice president of research and policy at Kauffman.

Experts say that with years of experience and savings to back their ideas, the baby boomers typically have advantages that younger adults lack when it comes to launching new ventures. Perhaps as a result, older entrepreneurs have higher success rates.

According to a 2008 report by researchers at City University of London’s Cass Business School, 70% of startups founded by people age 50 or older last longer than three years, versus 28% for those younger than 50.

In a 2009 study of more than 500 successful U.S. technology and engineering startups founded between 1995 and 2005, academics at Duke, Cornell and Harvard universities found that twice as many of the companies were launched by people over 50 as under 25. (The authors defined success as the company having at least $1 million in revenue, among other things.)

“Experience really counts,” says co-author Vivek Wadhwa, now a fellow at Carnegie Mellon University.

What’s more, for most, finances aren’t the main driving factor in the decision. “For many people, entrepreneurship is a choice they make,” says Arnobio Morelix, a senior research analyst at the Kauffman Foundation.

The trend, he adds, “seems to have very little to do with boomers being forced into” starting their own businesses. Indeed, according to Kauffman, just 16% of the oldest entrepreneurs report being unemployed before starting a business, the lowest rate among all age groups.

According to a 2015 Gallup Inc. poll, 32% of baby boomers who launched businesses say that they did so because it allows them to be independent. Another 27% say that it’s to “pursue their interests and passions.”

“It’s easier to pick your own hours if you are your own boss,” Mr. Morelix says.

In contrast, about one-fourth (24%) of baby boomers say that they started a business to supplement their income, while just 4% say they made the move because there are “no jobs available in my area.”

Anne Tergesen (Twitter @Annetergesen ) is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in New York. She can be reached at