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Linda Wiener: Careers in Aging - A Booming Industry

On January 1, 2006, the first of America’s nearly 77 million baby boomers turned sixty. Since then and every other day for the next eighteen years nearly eight thousand members of this demographic cohort has or will celebrate this same rite of passage, and the whole world is watching to find out What’s Next?

By the year 2030 Americans age 55 and older will number107.6 million; 31 percent of the population. Those over 65 will account for 20 percent of the total population (U.S. Census Bureau and Civic Ventures). This aging of the population will be one of the major social and business issues of the 21st century (globally), and the U.S. has been preparing for it f or over 50 years.

Extensive research has been conducted, and there has been much conjecture about financial and social implications, mass retirements and the impact on health care systems of an escalating population of frail elderly. Recently however, it has become apparent that a whole new set of possible scenarios is emerging, for both older adults and society in general. Because Americans are not only living longer but also more healthfully, they are challenging the historical way many things have been looked at, including service delivery, social involvement and work.

By most accounts, careers in the field of aging are going to be among the next big things in the 21st Century workplace. A key factor in the expected job growth in the field of aging, besides the obvious demographic bulge, is the shift away from viewing employment solely from the illness, disease and research model. This is due in large part to a redefinition of gerontology itself.

Gerontology is the study of the process of aging, across the life span, whose multi-disciplinary aspects include physical, mental, and social changes in people as they age. The study of the resultant societal impact of an aging population and the application of this knowledge is included in this description. Using this inclusive definition, professionals from diverse fields are known as gerontologists. Geriatrics relates to the comprehensive healthcare of older adults, specifically including the study of illness and disease in later life, and as such is a branch of gerontology (Exploring Careers in Gerontology©).

Until lately, options for working with older adults were concentrated mostly throughout the health care services continuum. While demand will remain high in these areas, the good news is that almost limitless opportunity exists for the development and delivery of new products and services to our burgeoning aging population.

Workforce Trends and Projections
The number of jobs in gerontology-related fields will increase by more than 36 percent by 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Rather than emphasizing illness and loss however, the trend among those that market to and serve older adults is to accentuate ways to help them stay productive and independent, ageing comfortably in the place of their choice.

Service-providing industries are expected to account for approximately 20.8 million of the 21.6 million new wage and salary jobs generated over the 2002-12 period. The education and health services industry supersector alone is projected to grow 31.8 percent, and add more jobs than any other sector. About 1 out of every 4 new jobs created in the U.S. economy will be in either the healthcare and social assistance or private educational services sectors (U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Targeted Industries
In addition to healthcare, general growth will be robust and employment opportunities for working with older adults will flourish in those industries related to business and financial services, fitness and wellness, consumer products (especially electronic and digital), housing (all sectors; new construction, adaptive remodeling to support aging in place , planned communities, etc.) and travel (including transportation and hospitality).

Research, and professional volunteer recruitment and management are also among those fields projected to experience unprecedented growth. Cutting-edge technological research, seeking to find ways to make life easier and safer for a continually expanding population of frail elderly is big business, globally. Current social research includes surveying public attitudes about aging and towards older citizens. Other studies explore ways to improve the image of aging in America.

Is has become apparent that to be motivated to engage in community service, boomers and retirees demand respect for their experience as well opportunity for quality assignments that utilize their skills and expertise. To capitalize on this rich potential, a wide range of major private and public sector organizations have begun professional redefinition of the roles of volunteer management leaders, spurring the establishment of certifiable standards and creating a new specialist category.

New Faces in Aging
As surely as the face of aging is changing, so also is the appearance of those attracted to employment in the field. People are drawn to working with seniors for a variety of reasons.

Many consciously seek employment in the field because of a lifelong affection for older adults, having grown up in multi-generational family units or around positive role models for aging.
Some end up serving an aging population because the type of work they choose appeals to a decidedly gray market and/or clientele. Those drawn for these reasons are new entrants to the workforce as well as career changers.

Still others choose vocational expression in the age group because of its exponential growth potential. These include social entrepreneurs and those seeking to enhance already established careers.

Unexpected Opportunities
Patti scrambled to re-career when she was outplaced; the regional pharmacy where she had worked for nine years closed. Her duties there had included a period of working directly with a senior population, and fond memories of those favorable experiences were fresh in her mind as she began the assessment part of her formal outplacement coaching,

What Patti uncovered was a theme of lifelong involvement and many close relationships with older adults. She decided to return to college to finish a degree begun years earlier, and chose gerontology as her field of study. Today she is a volunteer coordinator for a private faith-based CCRC (continuing care retirement community), a position that opened up to her after she interned in another department at the facility.

Patti’s next goal is to prepare for and take a national exam to become a certified volunteer administrator. Such expert designation will add professional stature to her skills to recruit, lead and integrate volunteers into any organization.

Objective Re-Careering
Seeking challenge and growth in their work lives, some career changers are pro-active and engage in methodical market research to find their best fit in emerging industries.  David falls into this category. His goal in returning to school was to prepare for a career where his efforts would make a difference, and in which he would find enjoyment each day. 

At stake for David in changing careers was giving up the relative security of nearly 15 years of governmental employment. His research included determining what impact becoming a private sector employee would have on his public employee retirement funds, and how to develop an exit strategy to maximize his pension options. 

What caught David’s eye about studying gerontology was the prospect of conducting and engaging in activities, and planning group events. Experienced in coordinating early childhood activities, and successful in community event planning he thought, “Why not take those skills and see if I can make a difference for some elders?”

While continuing to work full time, over a two year period David managed to complete coursework for an Associates of Applied Science degree in gerontology. Less than six months later he left his long-term job in payroll and accounting and went to work as a care coordinator at an upscale skilled nursing facility.

David found the fulfillment in human involvement he had been seeking, and that his former skill set was not only translatable but also quite useful (like creating time saving forms using Excel). According to David his new job has a great mix to it, “Some social work, a variety of activities, and a little marketing.”  Since the building was still undergoing major upgrading during his first few weeks he even got involved with helping to outfit the resident Spa.

Post-grad Specialization
Social Entrepreneurs, many already in their own carefully crafted right place seek to enhance their careers by targeting goods or services to the burgeoning aging marketplace. Amy had a Ph.D. and an MSW and had been working as a gerontological social worker for a number of years. Having studied aging as a distinct stage of life and worked with seniors and caregivers, she decided to refresh her academic understanding of aging prompted in large part by caring for her mother for nearly eight years.

Amy was drawn to research and ultimately pursue additional training and designation as a Certified Senior Advisor. What she found with the Society of Certified Senior Advisors™ was that more than the expected presentation of mind numbing fact sheets and earnings projections that the coursework embodied an inherent caring perspective about aging.

In addition to growing her own Caregivers’ Coach business, Amy became so passionate about the mission of the Society that she subsequently also became a trainer. With each new class she shares a favorite Margaret Mead quote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."    

With dual Masters Degrees, a community leader for more than 25 years, Judith took early retirement from the federal government and left the DC area to be near and care for family members in health crises.

After the death of her father Judith returned to school to gear up for a third age career, pursuing studies in gerontology and fitness technology. She chose the combination of the two programs as an expression of her commitment to staying fit and active and sharing with other seniors an enthusiasm and energy for living. She recently acquired instructor certification in water aerobics, and is pursuing personal fitness trainer certification.

Education and Certification
An interesting phenomenon has emerged coincidental to the increasing opportunities for employment in aging.  Career changers, individuals re-entering the workforce and non-traditional student have outpaced the typical 18-22 year old learner in exploring ways to catch the so-called age wave.

Historically, academic gerontology studies have been based on the illness and disease model, or geriatric aging. Based on the increasing numbers of aged Americans demand will remain high for graduates with this type of education, and many colleges and universities will successfully continue with existing curriculums.   

In recent years however, registration and enrollment have dropped off in some university gerontology programs. As a result, many academicians have found themselves scrambling to redefine both their curriculum and their student base.

Conversely, private sector professional certifications are becoming increasingly popular and gaining industry status and client confidence. Business and Aging Specialist. Certified Aging in Place Specialist. Certified Financial Planner. Certified Senior Advisor. Senior Real Estate Specialist. Certified Volunteer Administrator. The specializations continue to proliferate.

According to the academic journal Distance Learning Administration, when workers are shopping for education options, they should consider that “Certification is becoming more preferable to employers than a degree.”(New Mexico Business Weekly).

No longer a single profession, careers in aging offer the possibility of a specialist overlay to any profession serving our aging population.

For job seekers and career changers the challenges include choosing a good professional fit form a wide array of employment options. Often involved with these decisions is which, if any, of the niche market post-secondary certifications or traditional degrees to pursue.

For academic institutions (and other workforce development entities) the challenge is how to prepare students of gerontology for these new careers in aging. A growing number of colleges and universities have begun to offer specialized certifications in addition to Associates, Bachelors, Masters and Ph.D. degrees in the field.

Individuals from a myriad of life circumstances are becoming the new faces of gerontology. As a gerontology career expert, my advice to anyone considering a career in aging is to start with in-depth self assessment followed up with market research targeted to key areas of interest.

Taking a critical look at values, interests and skill preferences is a good way to maximize the potential for finding the best vocational fit. Market research is the next logical step to gain information specific to the details and employment outlook of unique gerontology career interests; necessary degrees or certification, working environment, job outlook, etc.

Whether beginning their work life, a career changer or a social entrepreneur, today’s professional that wants to zero in on their niche for working with older adults is likely to find a welcoming employer or customer.

Linda Wiener
CSA Journal 30 March 2006   
Reprinted with permission Society of Certified Senior Service Advisors

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