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How Do We Draw More Young People Into Careers in Aging?

Jess Stonefield May 13, 2019
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Hint: It will take more than money

According to the American Geriatrics Society, we will need 30,000 geriatricians to care for our aging by the year 2030—compared to the less than 8,000 we have now. For anyone looking for a guaranteed job for the next few decades, geriatrics seems to be a golden ticket. Unfortunately, the mad rush for careers in aging isn’t happening.

Data from the National Resident Matching Program, which matches medical students with potential residencies, shows that of 139 geriatric fellowship programs available in the 2018 appointment year, just 35 were filled. Of 387 positions offered for residents, just 176 were filled. It’s not just doctors who seem to be avoiding the sector. Less than 5% of nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists, psychologists and social workers have chosen to seek training in the care of older adults.

The question: why don’t young people want to work in the industry? And as a follow-up, what can we do about it?

A Career in Aging: Why It’s so Unpopular

In a recent Stria story, gerontologist Brandi Orton from St. Barnabas Senior Services in Los Angeles blamed an age-denying American culture for our collective unawareness of what it takes to age healthfully in this country. By and large, she says, we don’t want to think about aging. That’s why so many of us fail to save for our older years. It could also be why so few are interested in a career in the aging industry.

Other experts in the field agree—and offer additional reasons the field could be unattractive to younger people. According to Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, MSW, an adjunct gerontology instructor at Johns Hopkins University’s Certificate on Aging Program and author of the book “Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring For Your Loved One,” the reason could be as simple as having a bad experience with aging in our personal lives. “Perhaps they visited an older relative in a nursing home long ago, and now they think, ‘I could never go into a place that like every day,’” she says. “That ghost from 20 or 30 years ago left them terrified—so much so that they can’t even envisage another type of community existing.” 

Another issue: money. According to salary.com, the median annual salary for geriatricians is just under $190,000. That’s less than half the average salary of an orthopedic surgeon or cardiologist. Many young people, knowing they’ll face mounting medical school debt, simply choose the highest-paying specialty. Due to insurance reimbursement issues and the fact that most older people require longer appointment periods due to numerous chronic issues, geriatrics may never top the list.

Amanda Cavaleri, an entrepreneur focused on gerontechnology and emerging markets, offers yet another perspective. She says the industry hasn’t advanced in the same way that other industries have to meet the needs of Millennial workers. “You need to show young workers a win-win,” she says. “Here is what you’re getting—and it’s more than a paycheck.”

A Career in Aging: Changing Expectations

Traditional incentives like scholarships and signing bonuses—and even guaranteed job opportunities—don’t appear to be enough to get the younger generation interested in the aging industry.

“It’s clear we need to shift something at a higher level,” says FitzPatrick. The following are a few ideas.

Reset expectations about working in aging. “If I could tell young people two things about the aging industry, it would be this,” FitzPatrick says. “1) You won’t necessarily have to change Depends, and 2) there will always be a job for you. People are dumbfounded when they realize how many opportunities are out there.”

Quinn Brewer, a communications expert at Senior Living Fund agrees. “My goal is to get more younger people aware of how much potential there is in the longevity industry,” Brewer says. “It’s a space where we can help older people, their families and the greater community, and make a good living at the same time.”

Respond to the needs of younger workers. If the industry develops a model that works for young people, young people will be drawn to the industry. According to Cavaleri, the longevity space needs to adapt to today’s modern marketplace. “We are trying to fit Millennials into the space rather than adapting the space to fit them,” she says. Aging-related businesses need to understand the lifestyles younger people are living today. If a senior housing community is located in the suburbs and younger people are living in cities, for instance, find ways to create shifts that allow them to work longer shifts fewer times a week so they aren’t deterred by commute time.

Build an educational infrastructure that values aging. FitzPatrick recommends taking steps to require volunteer work in the aging industry starting in high school; requiring engaging classes on aging as part of core university degree requirements (such as this Golden Girls-themed course at Cal State Long Beach); and extending the length of geriatric residencies for medical students. “This may not be the first career path people think of, but passion can be cultivated,” FitzPatrick says.

Forgive student loans. Rather than trying to entice people with scholarships to study aging, Cavaleri recommends offering student loan forgiveness as an incentive to enter the industry. By alleviating that stress of paying off student loans, longevity-industry companies can pull young people in and help them fall in love with caring for the aging on the back end.

With the help of new business models, technology that promises to alleviate difficult, repetitive or unpleasant tasks, and a wealth of opportunity in the sector, we can change the way young people view a career in aging.

“Every sector is changing,” Cavaleri says. “Everything is. The question is whether we choose to adapt now or wait for a crisis to be disrupted.”

Jess Stonefield

Jess Stonefield is a contributing writer on aging, mental health and the greater longevity economy for publications such as Changing Aging, The Mighty and Next Avenue. She is passionate about impact investing and the greater concept of “equitable equity”—spreading wealth to all levels of our society. She is a communications expert for Senior Living Fund.

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