In era of workplace ageism, older workers at NIH feel embraced

(Sarah L. Voisin/ The Washington Post ) - Tarra Dumas, 53, of Montgomery Village, has been working at NIH for 25 years. He works out in the NIH gym.

(Sarah L. Voisin/ The Washington Post ) - Tarra Dumas, 53, of Montgomery Village, has been working at NIH for 25 years. He works out in the NIH gym.

Thomas Waldmann was 25 in 1956, when he started working as a clinical researcher at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. He has since had opportunities to work at universities including Harvard, Stanford and Cornell, with the potential for significant salary increases, but he never seriously considered them. Nor, at 83 and approaching his seventh decade on the job, is he in any hurry to retire.

Waldmann is not alone among his work colleagues. This year, NIH topped AARP’s list of best employers for workers over 50, based on criteria including career development opportunities, workplace accommodations, flexible scheduling, job sharing and other employee benefits.

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In an economic climate in which American workers older than 50 often feel marginalized and can have a hard time finding employment, older workers at NIH say they feel revered. Forty-nine percent of the nearly 20,000 employees are 50 or older, and the average age of all workers is 48. About one-fifth wait more than 10 years past retirement eligibility to retire.

Nationwide, 33 percent of the workforce is 50 or older; there is a 6.1 percent unemployment rate among this age group, compared with a 7.2 percent overall unemployment rate, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute’s September report. Many of the top employers for older workers on AARP’s list, which also includes George Mason University, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Virginia Commonwealth University and American University, were universities or health facilities — places where a higher average age is to be expected, because becoming a doctor, scientist or professor requires many years of higher education and leads to later entry into the workforce.

NIH offers perks with particular appeal for older employees, including flexible work schedules, generous telecommuting policies, opportunities to mentor younger workers and fitness programs geared for older bodies. Employees caring for family members can also sign up for emergency-care services, paying a small fee in exchange for someone checking in on their older relatives.

The benefits were not part of a master plan but rather something that evolved, said Phil Lenowitz, deputy director of NIH’s office of human resources.

“Most of it happened over the years as part of the culture,” he said. “You start with young scientists, and as the workforce ages, you look for things like the ‘Fit Plus Program’ [a low-impact fitness program] that wasn’t on people’s minds 20 years ago.”

The percentage of people 65 and older in the workplace has nearly doubled in the past three decades, from 10.8 percent in 1985 to 18.5 percent last year, according to AARP.

This reflects a cultural shift, said Larry Minnix, president of LeadingAge, an association of nonprofit aging-services providers.

“We’re starting to get beyond the perception that older people somehow peak and are given a gold watch and move on,” Minnix said. “I’m seeing the enlightened companies doing things that will retain employees, [but] I think a lot of companies are still feeling the high pressure of: How do you get young people in and promoted?”

More companies must accommodate the needs of older workers, said Mark Schmit, executive director of the Society for Human Resource Management. “We’ve been seeing only about a quarter of organizations really starting to take a look at this,” he said. “You want to get ahead of the curve, rather than behind it.”

At NIH, one factor that many employees say keeps them working into old age is the high that comes with NIH’s mission to cure life-threatening diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis as well as the pleasure of collaborating with top scientific minds on cutting-edge therapies.

“The electricity of intellectual stimulation here is really quite remarkable,” said Anthony Fauci, 72, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has worked there for 40 years. As he strode on an elliptical machine in one of the campus’s four fitness centers, he said the appeal is not limited to older workers. “Coming in in the morning really excited about what you’re doing is really the thing. If you have that atmosphere of energy and discovery, it really doesn’t matter if you’re 35 or 65.”

Agnes Juhasz, 59, a laboratory manager who was taking a Zumba class in the next room, said older workers get a level of respect at NIH that can be hard to find elsewhere.

“I don’t feel the same things as I felt back at another institute — that ‘She is too old, she is too expensive,’ ” she said. “Here, it is fine if I take a class, and I’m not alone in my age group, and nobody looks at me like, ‘She’s hopeless.’ ”

NIH offers a large array of after-work clubs in such subjects as photography, softball, theater, martial arts, sailing, orchestra and tap dancing.

Most members of the tai chi club are in their 50s and 60s and join because they are interested in improving balance and doing exercise that does not stress their joints, said John Hanover, 60, a laboratory chief in the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases who has worked at NIH since 1979 and is an assistant teacher in the club. “Many come seeking healing but stay because of the companionship and camaraderie,” Hanover said, adding that several scientific collaborations had blossomed from club meetings.

Even after retirement, many return to attend seminars, use labs or have lunch on the 312-acre campus dotted with trees and lawns. Employees compare it to a small town, with its own fire department, police force and even a resident herd of deer.

The fact that so many on the AARP list are health facilities or universities makes sense to Edward Schneider, professor of gerontology, medicine and biology at the University of Southern California. “I think [such facilities] are looking for people who are experienced,” he said, adding that, despite many companies’ biases against older workers, they tend to be “more seasoned, less likely to make a mistake.”

Not all workers at NIH who opt to work past retirement age are directly involved in scientific endeavors, however.

Gene Cowgill, 71, has worked there in a variety of jobs since 1963. He tried retirement for a few weeks in 1998 and hated it; he now helps manage a snack bar in one of the buildings. A tall man with a flowing white beard, he credited an NIH fitness program with helping him recover after he had his knees replaced six years ago.

“I feel like NIH has transformed me,” he said, noting that this past August was the “end of [his] first 50 years” at NIH. “My current plan is to work till I’m 100.”

A big draw for scientists such as Waldmann is the ability to view a project in terms of decades, rather than years.

“Science is a river,” he said. “You’re always building on the past. You might be able to turn over a rock and find something exciting; you don’t want to give up and say, ‘This is all there is.’ . . . It’s like planting a fruit tree that has a long duration, and when it comes time to harvest the oranges or whatever, you don’t want to leave.”

 
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