Elderly woman at computerRetirement has become a dream for many and a moving target for others. While the post-WWII baby-boom was a phenomenon reported in most developed countries, advances in global public health have resulted in aging populations everywhere. The US National Longitudinal Survey tracked a significant number of “baby boomers” (born between 1946 and 1964) and their employment patterns. They found that most will have experienced three or more periods of unemployment in their career. Due to employment gaps, they will not have saved enough for retirement and will therefore work an average of eight years longer than their predecessors (USBLS-NLS, 1978-2008). Many state, federal, and private retirement programs became overwhelmed as the generation reached retirement age and began to claim benefits.

generationsIn many cases, the age of retirement eligibility has been officially elevated which gave programs some time to recover. In European countries that are most impacted by the sovereign debt crisis, retirement age may rise to 70 or 80, making it easier for those countries to support the pensions and medical services of anyone surviving long enough to retire (Cerni, 2012). In the US, anyone born in 1937 was eligible to claim Social Security benefits at age 62, but people born in 1960 or after won’t be eligible until age 67 (SSA-2012). Economic conditions have made it necessary for baby-boomers to support their parents, adult children, and grand children. A recent poll found that 53% of young adults, age 18-25, continue to live with their parents until they find a job that will pay their bills (Dickler, 2012).

In today’s job market, both young and old compete for the same entry-level jobs. Anyone born after 1980 will have had continuous exposure to technology in school and daily living and will therefore adapt to online training resources. However, mature workers may not be as tech-savvy as their younger counterparts and may therefore require one-on-one job skills training–especially in the case of displaced laborers whose previous work did not require technical skill.

Many older workers are adapting to disability associated with loss of vision and/or hearing, mobility impairments, and/or diminished cognitive reasoning skills—all natural byproducts of aging. Assistive technologies (AT) help people with a range of disabilities succeed in the workplace and compete for jobs, but they require expert assessment, and ongoing training. Many mature workers weren’t exposed to technology in school and may be resistant to learning new things, or they become frustrated when faced with the need to learn technical interfaces. They would benefit from one-on-one instruction of the basics, but there is a critical shortage of vocational technology trainers throughout the world—especially those with an understanding of and experience with technology for people with disabilities.

While few STEM scholars are AT experts, many challenges faced by people with disabilities could be overcome with low-tech or available solutions that could be easily devised or identified by a STEM scholar who is fulfilling their pay-it-forward obligation through volunteerism. By volunteering to help at vocational technology training centers or senior centers, STEM scholars have an opportunity to engage with people they might otherwise never meet. By understanding the challenges faced by mature workers, STEM-Trek hopes that scholars will fully consider their needs in the future when developing new tools, technologies, and biomedical advances. Following the experience, some may choose to augment their scholastic track with additional expertise in the fields of aging or disability support. All STEM-Trekkers will emerge from their volunteer experience with heightened social awareness.