Older Adults as a Solution for Early Childhood Education Gaps is a Win-Win

Carol Larson, Consulting Senior Research Scholar, SCL

Research points to many reasons that older people  may be especially well-suited for vacant positions in early childhood care and education, SCL’s Consulting Senior Research Scholar Carol Larson told a state assembly select committee in May.

Matching the workforce need to older people’s availability is a win-win, she told the California State Assembly Select Committee on Happiness and Public Policy Outcomes, because research shows that intergenerational relationships create health and happiness for both younger and older people, with older people also deriving a sense of purpose and greater financial security from the engagement.

In 2021, California mandated a timeline for the rollout of free preschool for all four-year-olds by 2025, as well as expanded subsidies for preschool and infant-toddler care. But the state’s elementary schools will need to hire tens of thousands of new teachers to meet the required student-adult ratio for the classrooms for four-year-olds, according to a report by the Learning Policy Institute.

With 34% of California’s population over age 50, older people are positioned to fill that gap, Larson testified. Whether it’s working for Head Start, community-based organizations running child development centers, or elementary schools implementing transitional kindergarten, people over 50 have assets to give in terms of life experience, mental and emotional maturity, and time, she said.

After speaking with over 100 administrators and leaders working in early childhood care and education (ECE), Larson and her team found no one who is intentionally recruiting older adults to fill the vacant positions in ECE programs, despite the clear need. Also, all the training and apprenticeship programs they found focused only on young adults at the beginning of their careers.

As a result, Larson and her team conducted focus groups over the last six months with ECE directors and teachers as well as older adults interested in getting involved with ECE. They found that both groups would value the opportunity to work together.

Following this interest, SCL launched three small pilot programs that expand recruitment programs to include people over 50. The older adults will be trained to work as teacher assistants or substitute teacher assistants in child development centers and classrooms. The pilot programs are in Fresno, Los Angeles, and Santa Cruz. Results from the pilot projects and an analysis of the focus groups will be available by early fall.

As a consequence of her team’s research, Larson urged the Assembly Select Committee to:

  • Issue a strong statement framing age as an asset in early childhood workforce development;
  • Launch a cross-agency review about apprenticeship work, training programs, and pathways to work, particularly for older people. There are various programs in different departments, she told the committee, but it’s challenging to find out what’s available and there is little interaction among the programs.
  • Encourage stronger ties at the local level between Area Agencies on Aging with ECE.
  • And, down the road, create a $15 million innovation fund to support recruiting and retraining workers over 50 for early childhood education.

The team conducting the research is SCL Consulting Senior Research Scholar Larson, who is Trustee Emerita and former President and CEO of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; Claire Jordan, SCL Social Science Research Coordinator; and Claire Growney, PhD, SCL New Map of Life Research Postdoctoral Fellow. The principal investigator is SCL Director Laura Carstensen.

Read Larson’s written presentation