One of the more dramatic and significant labor-force developments of the past quarter century has been the rising participation rate of older Americans. In 1985, less than two-fifths of people age 50 and older were in the labor force (i.e., either working or looking for work). By 2018, that figure was nearly half or almost 54 million people. Older workers now make up about 33 percent of the total U.S. workforce ages 16 and older.
The number of older workers is projected to increase as the population ages and as more older workers opt to delay retirement because they want to continue working or because they cannot afford to retire. Those age 65 and older – traditionally “retirement age” – are the fastest-growing age group in the workforce.
It is increasingly important to older workers to have the option to work beyond traditional retirement age. Longer work lives contribute not only to current financial well-being but also to economic security in retirement. People’s ability to work depends in part on job availability. If employers face labor and skills shortages, as many experts predict, they may implement programs and policies to retain or hire more older workers. Not all experts, however, agree that labor shortages will be widespread.
Job creation and employment growth in the U.S. must be viewed within the context of a global economy and the increasing automation of tasks. Many jobs are easily exportable, with technology enabling workers in many occupations to be located anywhere. In addition, many jobs and tasks can be automated. U.S. policy must recognize and shape our country’s responses to these practices. Policy must support investments, including investment in human capital, to create jobs that will pay a living wage to workers in the U.S. and prepare workers for the new types of jobs that will emerge.
Significant barriers to hiring and retaining older workers exist. Among them is the persistence of blatant or subtle age discrimination. It can include such practices as excluding older applicants from recruiting activities, refusing to hire older applicants or promote older workers, targeting older workers in layoffs, curtailing their employee benefits, and limiting their training opportunities and job responsibilities.
Employment discrimination due to disability is a particular challenge for older workers who are more likely than younger workers to live with disabilities. Workers with disabilities serve with distinction in employment throughout the economy, yet many face difficulty securing and retaining jobs.
Antidiscrimination laws are essential to allow older adults to remain in the workforce. However, they have not gone far enough to end employment discrimination. In some cases, judicial decisions have curtailed the reach and efficacy of these laws. Enforcement, too, has frequently been lacking.
Lack of flexible work arrangements can be a barrier to continued employment by older workers, many of whom need to combine paid work with caregiving responsibilities and who often face discrimination as a result of those responsibilities. Another barrier is the lack of job training and placement assistance; workers need access to high-quality job search services and lifelong training and retraining opportunities to ensure that they remain competitive in a rapidly changing work environment.
In recent years, more and more people are working in nontraditional arrangements. Workers in these arrangements do not receive important benefits and protections available to regular employees. The absence of these benefits and protections makes it more difficult for workers to save for retirement and makes them more vulnerable to financial shocks.
AARP is committed to removing all barriers to employment opportunity and to expanding economic security for workers of all ages.