November 12, 2021
At a Glance
Low-income older workers have largely been left out of the dramatic shift toward remote work, potentially cutting off valuable opportunities for greater productivity, flexibility, and economic advancement. This paper explores how to make remote work more accessible to low-income older workers as part of the new economic landscape evolving due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The job market historically has been inhospitable to older workers, especially those from low-income households who lack postsecondary credentials. The sudden, massive shift to remote employment during the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated many of the inequities these workers face. They disproportionately lost jobs due to pandemic-related layoffs, and many worked in positions that were impossible to do remotely, increasing their exposure to COVID-19.
In a post-pandemic economy, as employers reassess how remote labor will fit into their talent development strategies, this report from JFF looks at the potential for low-income older workers to fill positions that can be done from home. We also assess how remote work opportunities may promote economic advancement for this group.
Both employers and employees may see benefits. Employers could expand their talent pool with veteran workers who have much to offer. In turn, these jobseekers could expand the geographic reach of their job searches, add years to their working lives, and acquire skills that may lead to higher-paying jobs. The report defines low-income older workers as those 50 and above with an income of less than $15 per hour, or $30,000 a year.
It’s an opportune time to explore these intersecting interests. By 2026, it’s predicted that one-quarter of the workforce will be over age 55. In addition, employers forecast that one out of every three employees will be working remotely in the next four years. And while many lower-wage jobs are not yet available online, more could be. And finally, a growing number of companies has committed to increasing diversity by taking a second look at candidates they may have dismissed in the past for lacking the “right” degree or credential.
JFF analyzed labor market data about where older workers without postsecondary educational credentials are most likely to be employed and where remote work possibilities exist. With that data as a backdrop, the report’s authors considered older workers’ strengths and arrived at three professions that would likely be a good fit for them, especially if they receive training: customer service representative, sales representative, and insurance sales agent.
The path forward could be smoothed by older employees’ experience in brick-and-mortar settings. For example, a person who has worked in retail sales may be well suited to work as an online shopping assistant or customer service representative. Both jobs require sales and marketing know-how, active listening, and skills of persuasion. Transitioning from home health aide to telemedicine support person may be natural as well. Overlapping requisite abilities include ease with monitoring and assessing situations, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Notably, both career paths provide opportunities for advancement and higher wages.
Remote work requires many of the same general skills needed for any job, but arguably to an even greater degree. Older workers possess many of these abilities—self-direction, motivation, good time management—but the jury is still out about whether some significant challenges counterbalance these advantages. For example, to what extent do they have technological savvy or a dedicated workspace, free of distractions? Ageism may be a tough barrier to overcome as well.
The report acknowledges other unknowns that make it tricky to predict the likelihood of a large number of low-income, older workers transitioning to remote careers. For example, will older employees’ superior communication skills translate to online formats? What kinds of return on investment will companies be looking for when deciding whether to convert lower-wage in-person jobs to remote ones? And which industries and professions will be most transformed by the remote-work revolution?
More research must be done to better understand how remote work opportunities for low-income older workers continue to evolve. JFF recommends the following pilot projects:
- Increase employer commitments to building a remote-ready multigenerational workforce, with a focus on increasing the number of remote jobs for lower-wage and frontline older workers. This initiative would work closely with employers to increase the number of remote-ready opportunities they offer. It would also develop and provide supports, processes, and tools to identify, test, and compile ways to encourage broader employer hiring of low-income older workers for remote jobs across sectors and the country.
- Equip low-income older workers with technical and other skills to meet employer needs by working remotely. This effort would build on pre-existing, large-scale training efforts, like Skillup, Verizon Skill Forward, and Grow with Google, to better find, recruit and support older workers as they train for new, remote-friendly careers.
- Take advantage of shifts resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic to find remote job solutions for highly impacted low-income older workers. This initiative would identify or develop appropriate skills interest and assessment tools to determine an individual’s level of readiness for remote work and recommend a transitional and efficient process for building needed skills. Engaging sector or regional employers with a new interest in hiring remote workers and a willingness to employ low-income older workers who meet their hiring criteria would be a critical strategy.
Once all of these tools and processes are in place, engage sector or regional employers with a need for remote workers and a willingness to employ low-income older workers who meet their hiring criteria.
Older employees have many qualities that make them desirable in the workplace: they tend to be highly reliable and productive; they stay at jobs longer than their younger counterparts; and they help fulfill some employers’ desire for a multigenerational workforce, to name a few. The challenge is to set up the conditions for them to succeed in the new world of remote work and to show employers the benefits of hiring them.
This report was made possible through a grant from AARP Foundation.