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Careers in Gerontology

If you're interested in pursuing a career that will enable you to help people, you may be considering social work, psychology or health care. You're concerned about future job prospects, but you also want to know where your energies can best be directed, how the skills you'll learn in a degree program might have the biggest impact, and what the most pressing needs will be in your chosen field. If you're looking for training in an area that opens the door to a wide and expanding array of career opportunities in social work, psychology, health care, and beyond, gerontology deserves your attention.

Merriam-Webster defines gerontology broadly as, "the comprehensive study of aging and the problems of the aged." In practice, gerontology encompasses a broadening spectrum of specific applications and specialized work in a wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary field dedicated to improving the quality of life for the aging. As the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education (AGHE) points out, this can mean anything from providing care, counseling, and other vital social services directly to older persons on a community level, to staffing, administering, and advocating for programs that better serve that population in general. A recent story in the Baltimore Sun newspaper profiled spotlighted Cyndi Hutchens, a Bank of America Merrill Lynch administrator who went back to school for a master's degree and became the company's first ever director of financial gerontology. That's just one example of the kind of opportunity open to those with a gerontology degree.

Gerontology degree programs

The pathway to a career in gerontology begins at the undergraduate level, often with students working in related disciplines such as sociology, psychology or the health sciences. The AGHE even lists anthropology, architecture, and political science, along with pre-med and nursing, as relevant areas of study. Colleges and universities with bachelor's degrees specifically tailored to gerontology have become more common, as have institutions offering minors in aging as part of other academic majors.

A four-year B.A. is generally considered the best preparation for the job market. However, community colleges do have two-year associate degree programs that provide training in gerontology and aging services. An associate degree or certificate can be sufficient for certain entry-level positions.

There are also nearly 100 universities currently offering master's and Ph.D. degree programs in gerontology, and many more that allow students to specialize in aging within another field, like psychology, social work or economics. A postgraduate degree is helpful for those seeking the top tier jobs in the field as administrators, project managers and public policy consultants.

Gerontology training

Because gerontology is a multi-disciplinary field, biology, sociology and psychology are usually the core areas of study associated with a degree. But training to become a gerontologist can embody much more than that. For example, a student in a bachelor's degree program might begin by completing the prerequisites for a biology major, and follow up with more specialized coursework in theories of aging, geriatric psychology and physiology, social science statistics and methods, and government policy.

As you progress toward a degree, it is also possible to specialize in either social gerontology or biogerontology. A social gerontologist might go on to directly with people in the community, at senior centers or retirement homes, counseling families or organizing activities, while a biogerontologist would be more inclined toward clinical research or product design. Internships are often a crucial part of the training, both for students aiming to work in clinical health care settings, and for those more interested in becoming social workers and counselors.

Career outlook for gerontologists

Gerontology includes such a wide range of disciplines that it's hard to pin it down to one job description. There are nurse practitioner gerontologists, bioengineering research gerontologists, occupational therapy gerontologists, and, yes, financial gerontologists. The job forecast and salary for gerontology careers generally correlates to the related field. In the case of social workers, that corresponds to a robust projected growth rate of 19 percent up through 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov). The national average annual salary in May 2013 for social workers was $56.06. For personal care aides, the growth rate jumps to a whopping 49 percent, with a national average annual wage of $20,990. Those designated as medical and health service managers made an average of $101,340, with growth projected at 23 percent through 2022.

The basic math is fairly simple: with baby-boomers reaching retirement age, the number of people age 65-and-older grew 18 percent in the first decade of the 21st century to over 41 million, according to the most recent report from the Administration on Aging. That's nearly one in eight Americans, or 12.9 percent of the total population. The upward trend is expected to continue over the next two decades, reaching a projected 19 percent in 2030, by which time an estimated 72.1 million Americans will be 65 or older. Simply put, people are living longer, leading healthier, more active lifestyles, and wrestling with the challenges of maintaining their quality of life in a technologically complex society. That translates directly to a greater need for those trained in all of the various areas of gerontology.

Sources:

Medical and Health Services Manager, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes119111.htm

Medical and Health Services Managers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/medical-and-health-services-managers.htm

Social Workers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211029.htm

Social Workers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm

Personal Care Aides, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes399021.htm

Personal Care Aides, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/personal-care-aides.htm

"How Do I Become a Professional in Aging?", Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, 2014, http://www.aghe.org/500216

"A Profile on Older Americans: 2012," U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Aging, Administration for Community Living, 2012, http://www.aoa.gov/Aging_Statistics/Profile/2012/docs/2012profile.pdf

"The Baby Boomers Retirement Crunch Begins," U.S. News & World Report, May 13, 2013, http://money.usnews.com/money/retirement/articles/2013/05/13/the-baby-boomer-retirement-crunch-begins

"Five Questions for Financial Gerontologist Cyndi Hutchins," The Baltimore Sun, July 17, 2014, http://www.baltimoresun.com/business/bs-bz-5-questions-hutchins-gerontology-20140717-story.htm

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