Glenn McRae: The workforce of the future may already be here

This commentary is by Glenn McRae of Burlington, a practicing anthropologist, an instructor in the public administration master’s program at the University of Vermont, director of the Northeast Transportation Workforce Center at the UVM Transportation Research Center, and co-chair of Burlington’s Aging Council. He formerly was policy director for the Snelling Center for Government and founding executive director for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. 

People age 65-plus comprise 20% of Vermont’s population. An additional 8% are age 60-64. Meaningful discussion of the concerns and needs of 28% of Vermont’s population (180,000 Vermonters) was conspicuously absent in Gov. Scott’s State of the State Address, as well as any of the formal responses to it.

Think about that. 

This rather significant segment of Vermont’s population was completely absent from consideration in the State of the State address. Minor nods, offering up only undefined tax relief to retirees, or investment in senior centers, only served to highlight the absence of attention to the needs, and the possible contributions, of this significant group of Vermonters.

We continually hear about the dearth of “working age” Vermonters needed to fill the many open positions. The governor, joined by many others, looks at policy initiatives that accept the artificial cutoff age of 65 for viable workers, assuming none of us past that age will still be working or that we might want to transition to new work and positions, or start new businesses.

There has been a deficit-based narrative around Vermont’s “aging population” for decades, focusing on how it will increasingly burden the state budget with our inevitable declining health and growing needs that somehow make our demographic uncompetitive in the broader workforce marketplace.

Vermonters are aging. A growing number of us are passing that magical 65-year-old line where we suddenly transform from productive individuals to alleged “drags on Vermont’s economy.” Our employers start to look at us as transitioning out as we hit our 60s. I believe that this thinking represents a crisis of societal imagination, ignoring the tens of thousands of potential workers.

If we can envision policy initiatives to reorganize and reimagine work and working conditions, with flexibility, to invite workers age 65-plus to participate in a meaningful capacity, we will undoubtedly be taking a large step to mitigate Vermont’s workforce crisis.

Many in the 65-plus demographic work, out of need or interest, but are they working at their full capacity?

Policy initiatives from the governor, the Legislature and business bend over backward to attract young new talent, and prepare Vermont’s diminishing youth population, or its new refugee populations for challenging and good career paths. This is needed and laudable. 

However, Vermont would benefit immensely if a similar set of initiatives were focused on education, housing and work opportunities for the age 60-plus population, assuming many will have 10 to 20 years of vitality and opportunity to work in some capacity, to contribute to Vermont’s economy and their communities. These workers bring 40-plus years of experience with them!

In her response to the governor’s address, Vermont Chamber President Betsy Bishop implored that we need to encourage every Vermonter to participate in the workforce. She noted that five years ago, the Vermont Futures Project estimated that we need 10,000 more workers annually and, since the pandemic, that number has certainly increased. 

What is missing in the strategies proposed is that we do have tens of thousands of workers here who could be attracted back into the workforce in a meaningful capacity. In some cases, it is encouraging workers to stay, or to rejoin, if we have the imagination and willpower to address their needs and interests. 

A concerted campaign in Vermont to create a vision for 60-plus-year-olds to reimagine a next chapter of life career path, one that balances well-being and contributing to Vermont’s economy with possibly five to 20 years of engaged and meaningful work, can benefit the individual and the state. 

This campaign would provide tools and incentives to employers to reengineer the workplace to attract and retain older workers, as a unique and exciting strategy into the future of Vermont’s economic success.

The “Great Resignation” is not just about mid-career workers. What has been done to look at the interests and needs of the potential 60-plus-year-old workforce? Can we reimagine what part-time, flexible work schedules could look like? Do we understand what incentives are necessary to engage these workers? Is our education and training infrastructure being adjusted to include them? The story about Dan and Whit’s general store in Norwich, Vt., invites us to consider what is possible on a small community scale. 

AARP and Encore are organizations that bring resources and inspiration to this conversation on a national level. The Vermont-based A4TD (Associates in Training & Development) assists mature workers to become the best-qualified candidates for jobs consistent with their interests and abilities.

We have the resources and skills; now all we need is the imagination and drive.

Why not align workforce initiatives — the priority for the governor, the Legislature and employers — with pathways that are inclusive of an active and experienced population already here in Vermont? It is a win-win proposition if we have the vision to seize the opportunity. 


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