Gillian B. White: You spent a lot of time researching the labor force and changing demographics around the world, in your opinion how prepared is the U.S. for the shift to an older population?
Joseph M. Coleman: There are good things and bad things. We have a very dynamic economy, we're able to react to changing circumstances in a relatively rapid way. That's a great strength as far as responding to the the changing circumstances of the demographic composition of the labor force. The bad thing is that we're very short-term focused and I think that the recession only exacerbated that.
In Europe there was a lot of interest in accommodating older workers and that kind of abruptly stopped in 2007. The thing we don't really have in this country, that you see elsewhere, is a role governments can play in making it a priority to employ older workers. Certainly compared to Japan and in some parts of Europe, the United States government is not really that active. I think partially that's because we see ourselves as a very market-driven economy, so the hurdle is higher to get the government involved. It's going to be important for us to find employment for people as they get older because we're pushing retirement ages higher, but we're not doing anything to make it easier to keep those people employed until we start giving them Social Security.
White: What were some of the primary differences you found in the mindset of older Americans versus elderly citizens elsewhere when it comes to the idea of continuing to work in their later years versus retiring?
Coleman: I visited four countries and it seemed like the mindset was different in each place. I think there are a lot of Americans who want to continue working. You have a lot of people who are highly educated and identify very strongly with their work. When 65 rolls around they don't necessarily feel like that identification ends, they want to continue to do something. In places like France the feeling is a little different. I think what happens is that the idea of self fulfillment may be less associated with your workplace and your economic role.
Japan is interesting also, because the Baby Boomer generation in Japan was a generation that was very much wrapped up in work. You have a lot of people who just want to be busy, the idea of being idle does not sit very well in that culture. So you see a lot of people working for peanuts but they're just working because they want to continue doing something.
White: In your travels, was there any particular program or plan that you found the most compelling when it came to keeping older workers in the labor force, but also not risking their health or safety?
Coleman: One interesting thing that I noticed in Sweden was job councils. It's lubrication of the labor market. If your company runs into trouble and has to lay you off, you go to an employment agency that is geared toward your industry. I found that very interesting because it acknowledged that there are business cycles that may require companies to cut their labor force. This is just a fact of life. We have to provide something for them so that they can perhaps get retrained, get some job counseling, brush up on their job-search skills and retool themselves for the labor market—which may be very different from the last time they looked for a job 20 or 30 years ago—and the labor market is going to look at you in a very different way. You may very well need to update your skills to be ready to compete in the present circumstances. I think training is really important and it's something that we don't get enough of anywhere, but certainly for older workers I think it's a critical. Training can really extend your employability.