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Workers Age 50-Plus in the Gig Economy: A Look at Tutors on the Wyzant Platform

For many, when they think of the gig economy, a particular worker comes to mind: a millennial who is allergic to nine-to-five office employment and instead wants the flexibility to work (and play) on their terms. This picture isn’t wrong, but it isn’t complete.

Older workers, which we define here as age 50 and older, are a sizeable piece of gig economy—and their numbers appear to be steadily increasing.

According to the 2017 MBO Partners State of Independence in America, an annual report on the independent workforce, workers age 53 and above comprised 35 percent of the full-time independent workforce in 2016, up from 33 percent in 2015. Workers age 21-37 made up 38 percent of this workforce in 2016, down from 40 percent in 2015.

And a report from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave found that 47 percent of today’s retirees say they either have worked or plan to work during their retirement. In addition, 72 percent of people 50 and older who haven’t yet retired say they want to keep working in retirement.

We have seen these trends play out with tutors on the Wyzant platform as well. Almost a third (32.7 percent) of tutors on the one-to-one tutoring platform are age 50 and older.

The company recently surveyed these older tutors to better understand what motivates them to do this work. There are many reasons, but the most cited one was “to share the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years.”

This isn’t too surprising when you consider that baby boomers are the most educated generation yet to retire.

This paper offers an inside look at the 50-plus tutor population on the Wyzant platform—including age breakdown and most common subjects tutored—and then delves into the results of a June 2017 survey we conducted with this tutor population. The survey aimed to find out more about who these tutors are and what motivates them to do this work as they are nearing and in retirement.

Older Tutors on the Wyzant Platform: The Age Breakdowns

According to a 2016 report from Freelancers Union and Upwork, 55 million Americans—35 percent of the workforce—are freelancing. A big reason this number keeps growing is technology: Seventy-three percent of survey respondents said technology has made it easier to find freelance work, a 4 percentage point increase since 2014. The JP Morgan Chase Institute found that 400,000 Americans 65 and older are using an online platform to earn money.

Tutors age 50 and older using Wyzant comprise 32.7 percent of the total tutor population on the platform. Although the media often focuses on younger workers choosing the flexibility of on-demand work, or being forced into it because of a lack of full-time jobs, workers over 50 are a significant piece of the gig economy. According to a recent CBS News article, Uber reports that 24 percent of its drivers are over 50 and DogVacay (recently acquired by Rover) says that 25 percent of its pet sitters are over 50.

Broken down by age ranges, 7.8 percent of all tutors on the Wyzant platform are 50-54, 7.9 percent are 55-59, 7.4 percent are 60-64, 5.2 percent are 65-69 percent, 4.1 percent are 70-79, and 0.3 percent are 80 and older.

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Older Tutor Motivations: What the Wyzant Survey Tells Us

Snapshot of Survey Respondents

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Wyzant wanted to better understand why tutors age 50 and older—a subset of whom have retired from their full-time jobs—chose to be tutors. So in June 2017, Wyzant sent an online survey to 4,500 50-plus tutors on their platform, and summarized the responses of 1,254 tutors. The average age of respondents was 62, and the oldest respondent was 90. Twenty-six percent of surveyed tutors are retired, and the vast majority (87 percent) have been tutoring through Wyzant for at least a year.

These tutors teach over 201 different subjects, including the typical school subjects (math, English, science, etc.); a multitude of languages; and creative skills, such as photography software Adobe Lightroom and drawing.

Not surprisingly, however, Wyzant internal data shows that, by number of students, the top subjects for which tutors age 50 and older are providing instruction are concentrated in a few subjects. When looking at the K-12 student population, older tutors are most likely to provide tutoring in the subjects of math (specifically, algebra 1, algebra 2, geometry, and precalculus) and chemistry. And for older tutors working with adult students, the most popular subjects are ESL/ESOL, English, Spanish, writing, and accounting.

When survey participants were asked to choose the age group they most prefer to work with, the highest response was K-12 students, with 45 percent of respondents choosing this group, followed by college students (27 percent), young adults (15 percent), adults in their 40s (9 percent), and peers (5 percent).

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Fully half of survey respondents least prefer working with peers, and 28 percent least prefer working with K-12 students. Given that K-12 students are also the most preferred age group tells us that these tutors tend to have strong feelings one way or the other about working with this student group.

Survey respondents are highly educated: ninety-five percent hold at least a bachelor’s degree and more than 67 percent have an advanced degree (master’s, PhD, or MD).

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Not surprisingly, 98 percent of 50-plus tutors have had jobs outside of tutoring over their careers, and 61 percent still do. Almost half of tutors (47 percent) are currently working another job that’s related to the subject they’re tutoring in, using their current expertise to bring in supplemental income while also helping others. Thirty percent are no longer working another job but are tutoring in a subject related to their former work.

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When asked about their most recent (if retired) or current occupation, 739 survey participants of the total 1,254 provided an answer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 57 percent of these tutors described jobs related to teaching or tutoring.

Tutor Motivations and Commentary

When asked what motivated them to look into or begin tutoring, 73 percent of survey respondents said “To share the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years,” which was the most popular reason.

The second highest motivation—respondents could choose as many as applied to them—was “The revenue” at 59 percent, followed by “Because I can control my rate and hours” at 50 percent, and “to stay intellectually connected to my area of study” at 49 percent. (See chart for other responses.)

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Jacqueline James, co-director of the Center on Aging & Work at Boston College isn’t surprised that so many 50-plus people tutoring through Wyzant want to share what they’ve learned over the years. “This generation is the most educated generation in history to retire. They’ve usually had jobs that they enjoy and they want to keep doing,” she says. In addition, “we live in a work-identified culture, and a lot of people have found their way to work they like, and they want to keep doing it.”

Tutors who are motivated to share their knowledge are particularly keen to do so with younger generations. In fact, tutors who said they want “To share the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years” were 7.4 times more likely to also pick “To stay connected to others who are younger than I am” (which 20 percent of surveyed tutors chose as a motivation) than those who didn’t.

Jane M., age 74, is a great example of a tutor who enjoys sharing her knowledge with younger generations. She has been helping students prepare for standardized tests (e.g., ACT, SAT, ASVAB, and others) through Wyzant since 2012. She tutors students of all ages, but given her tutoring focus, many are teenagers, a group she particularly enjoys working with. “[Teenagers] have their whole life ahead of them,” she says. “I like being able to influence that even if it’s in a little bitty way. There’s a spark in them.”

Not surprisingly, tutors who are motivated by revenue also appreciate that they can control their rate and hours using Wyzant. In fact, those who are motivated by revenue were 47 percent more likely to also pick “Because I can control my rate and hours” than those who didn’t choose revenue as a motivation.

Dorothy P., age 57, has been tutoring students in Spanish and writing since 2008 on Wyzant. She appreciates the flexibility that tutoring offers since she herself is a student. She is currently in her thesis year of her master’s degree in creative writing and periodically needs to take time off from work to focus on her degree program.

Tutors who are motivated by revenue aren’t necessarily solely driven by this reason. In fact, respondents who chose revenue as a motivation were no less likely than those who didn’t to also pick “To share the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years.”

Whether older tutors are primarily motivated by the income or other reasons, multiple studies have shown that working during retirement offers a multitude of benefits and improves quality of life. For example, researchers from Oregon State University found that working past age 65 brings economic and social benefits that can lengthen life spans. And other research has found that having a purpose in life, such as work and helping others, might serve as a brain protectant.

“I wouldn’t minimize the social part of working during retirement,” says Richard Eisenberg, senior web editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and managing editor for the site. “If older adults are tutoring or doing other jobs, it gives them the opportunity to have conversations and spend time with at least one other person. That’s a big benefit for retired people.”

A Closer Look at Revenue

Eisenberg points out that many people who are nearing retirement or are recently retired are in a different financial position than previous generations. “For a lot of baby boomers, retirement is going to be fully dependent on their own savings and Social Security,” he says. “So for them, the need to work is stronger because they don’t have the pension as the backstop like their parents and current [older] retirees.”

Surveyed tutors’ hourly rates cover a wide range: Some charge as little as $15 per hour for their services, while others charge as much as $160 per hour. Some 50-plus tutors make nearly $100,000 per year through Wyzant alone.

When asked how they are spending the money they earn from tutoring, 47 percent of tutors said they use it for their own expenses, 39 percent use it solely for family members, and 14 percent use it for both themselves and family members.

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Eighty-nine percent of survey respondents are spending their tutoring income on everyday expenses, while 18 percent are using it for vacations or trips to see family or friends, and 12 percent are using it for major expenses, such as home renovations or car repairs.

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James points out that as U.S. health care costs keep outpacing inflation, it’s helpful to have even a small financial buffer. “I also think psychologically, it’s hard to spend your savings,” she says. “It’s easy when there’s a paycheck that’s coming in every month. But when you start thinking about spending your savings, it’s a whole different matter. Having some money that you feel like you can spend on everyday expenses is a good feeling.”

The extra income that tutors are earning to complement retirement savings—not to mention the bounty of benefits that come from staying mentally and socially active as they age—might explain why fully 75 percent of survey tutors age 50 and older plan on tutoring for as long as they are able. This data point also aligns with the 73 percent of tutors who are motivated to tutor “To share the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years.”

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And when asked if they would continue to tutor when they are fully retired, 71 percent said yes and 26 percent said they are already retired. Only 3 percent of surveyed tutors plan to stop tutoring when they retire.

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Summary of Findings

The gig economy is not the sole provenance of millennials, though they do tend to dominate the media discussion of the topic. Our data shows that about a third (32.7 percent) of tutors on the Wyzant platform are age 50 and older, and most in that population are either doing this work in retirement or they plan to do so once they retire.

Older tutors are on the Wyzant platform for a variety of reasons, but the vast majority (73 percent) of tutors age 50-plus who responded to the Wyzant survey cited a desire to share their accumulated knowledge—the most common reason given.

“There are a lot of people who want to give back at this time in their lives, and one way is to pass along some of the knowledge they have to people who could use it—often it’s younger people,” Eisenberg says. “People are often looking to find purpose in their lives when they are in retirement or in their 50s and 60s and find ways to be useful. Tutoring is one great way to do that.”

A Closer Look at Three Tutors Using Wyzant

Data can tell an interesting story, but nothing paints a picture quite like the people living the data. Below are snapshots of three 50-plus tutors who are sharing their knowledge with students on Wyzant.

Jane M.

In 2006, when Jane M., 74, retired from a 28-year career as a high school science and math teacher, she initially thought she was done with teaching. She even got a two-year degree in legal studies and worked as a paralegal in St. Louis, Missouri, where she lives.

But it turns out once a teacher, always a teacher. “It’s taken me 74 years to realize that,” Jane says. (After earning her master’s in chemistry earlier in her career, she worked as a chemist for a few years, but also was drawn back to teaching.)

Jane left legal work and started helping students prepare for the SAT and ACT, in addition to the GED, ASVAB (for the military), and other specialized occupational tests. She points out almost all such tests have a reading comprehension, math, and grammar component. She started tutoring through Wyzant in 2012.

Most of her students are between the ages of 16 and 40. “But for the GED, I’ve tutored up to age 63,” she says.

She used to do all in-person tutoring at the local library, but now she’s only doing online sessions. “I like tutoring online because I don’t have to worry about leaving the house, and it just makes it easier for me,” she says.

She estimates that she spends about 25-35 hours a week tutoring, which suits her perfectly. “I never was good at the artsy stuff; I just never had hobbies like that,” she says. “And you can only go out to lunch so many times.”

Jane has had many memorable students over the almost five years she’s been tutoring through Wyzant, but one in particular stands out.

“One of my first student was a high school student who was good in math but not great. She wanted to go to college and get a good ACT score. I worked with her enough that her ACT score got her a four-year scholarship to the college of her choice. Her family invited me to a party and gave me flowers; her mother was so appreciative.” Jane stresses that the student did the hard work; she was just the coach.

Currently, Jane doesn’t have plans to stop tutoring.

“I like teaching because I feel I can really help a person,” she says. “I can help them prepare for a test that is going to affect their future and help them grow in confidence as well as knowledge. That’s a pretty big thing.”

Christine S.

About six years ago Christine S., 64, retired as a speech and language pathologist for the public school system in Boulder, Colorado, where she still lives.

Christine, who had already been doing some tutoring outside of her full-time job, joined Wyzant when she retired to work with students in reading and ESL. “I was looking for something to do still in the education field without necessarily needing to work full time,” she says. She tutors about 10-12 hours per week during the school year and less in the summer.

The majority of the students she’s tutored over the years are in the lower elementary grades. In particular, she gets great satisfaction from helping children who have multiple learning issues, like the student she worked with who had severe ADHD along with visual problems. She knows from her 29-year career in education that kids with multiple disabilities don’t get much, if any, individual instruction in school—but they really need it.

“What I really like about tutoring is having that one-on-one contact with a kiddo,” Christine says. “I get to take them from where they are and move them forward, which was a whole lot harder to do in a group setting in schools.”

But Christine doesn’t just work with younger students. She’s also worked with a number of adults who need ESL or literacy instruction.

“I recently worked with a gentleman in his 60s who was retired and had a lifelong dream to read at a higher level,” Christine says. He didn’t receive proper instruction during his primary education. “He grew up believing he was stupid,” she says.

He had taught himself to read at about a third-grade level, but in his retirement he wanted to read the newspaper with better understanding, along with books of interest.

Over the six months she worked with him, Christine saw a huge improvement in his reading ability. “He had never been taught phonics—matching sounds to letters,” she says. “He tended to read and memorize words, so he had no idea what to do when he encountered a brand new word.” She went back to basics with him.

Christine has great respect for this student’s drive to improve his skill set at that point in his life. “He was a very interesting, challenging man to work with.”

Dorothy P.

Since 1990, Dorothy P., 57, has been a full-time freelancer, working as a writer, editor, literary translator, and Spanish tutor. For 26 years, she’s been tutoring and teaching Spanish, including as an adjunct professor at numerous universities in New York City.

When Dorothy first joined Wyzant, she worked with students of all ages. More recently, however, she’s narrowed her student focus. “Right now I mostly qualify myself as an adult language coach,” Dorothy says, noting that over her career she’s created curricula for adults who need to learn Spanish for professional reasons.

She particularly enjoys working with people in the medical field, social workers, and people who work overseas. “They are the kind of students who inspire me a little more,”she says.

Dorothy is in her thesis year of her master’s in creative writing, so now she’s also interested in working with students who want a writing coach. In fact, she’s already helped some executives working in the U.S. who are not native English speakers and need help writing better work memos and emails.

Dorothy now lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and does all of her tutoring online. “I’m living in a small town where the quality of life is fantastic but the population of potential students is very small,” she says. “I want to keep teaching Spanish, but I don’t want to travel twenty miles to do it.” She estimates that she generally spends about ten hours a week tutoring students through Wyzant.

Dorothy has been tutoring through Wyzant since 2008, and she has retained many long-term students over the years. One is an older woman whom Dorothy started tutoring in Spanish when she lived in New York.

After they had been working together, her student, then in her mid-70s, was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I tutored her through her chemotherapy, after her chemotherapy, when they discovered another tumor, and through the next round of chemotherapy,” Dorothy says. This student is now 82 and able to read Cervantes. Dorothy is still working with her.

“She says that if she hadn’t been taking Spanish lessons with me, she never would have gotten through her cancer,” Dorothy says. “She attributes part of her recovery to that experience of positive learning.”

“Learning is good for you,” Dorothy continues. “It gives people hope that life is worthwhile. I think that’s part of the service that a really good tutor provides.”