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., they were either working or looking for work). By 2013 that figure had risen to nearly half.
As of 2013, 50.7 million people age 50 and older were in the labor force, making up 33 percent of the total. That total is projected to increase as the boomer population ages and as more older workers opt to delay retirement because they want to continue working or because they cannot afford to retire.
It is increasingly important to older workers, including the one-third of AARP members who are in the workforce, 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 obviously depends on job availability. If employers face labor and skills shortages, as many experts predict, they may well implement programs and policies to retain or hire more older workers. Not all experts, however, agree that labor shortages will be widespread. At present, it is jobs not workers that are in short supply.
Job creation and employment growth in the US must be viewed within the context of a global economy. Many jobs are easily exportable. Technology enables workers in many occupations to be located anywhere. US policy must recognize and respond to global competitive trends that affect American workers. It must support investments, including investment in human capital, to create jobs that will pay a living wage to workers in the US and contribute to economic growth.
Many of the jobs that have been created recently are low-wage, service-sector jobs. They frequently offer little in the way of benefits, job security, training, or opportunity for advancement. These jobs are expected to increase substantially in coming years. Despite rising productivity and higher corporate profits, wages have remained stagnant.
Significant barriers to hiring and retaining older workers exist. Among them is the persistence of age discrimination, which can be blatant or subtle. It can include such practices as 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 on grounds of disability is a particular challenge for older workers. Workers with disabilities serve with distinction in employment throughout the economy. Yet many workers with disabilities face difficulty securing and retaining jobs. A disproportionate number of workers who are discriminated against on the basis of disability are older.
Antidiscrimination laws are essential. 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.
Freedom from overt discrimination is not a guarantee of fairness. Economic equity for women, especially women from racial and ethnic groups that have experienced discrimination, whose earnings continue to lag behind those of men in comparable jobs, stands out as a particular problem. So does the treatment of low-wage workers for whom full-time, year-round work too often fails to provide sufficient income for a decent standard of living.
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 lifelong training and retraining opportunities to ensure that they remain competitive in a rapidly changing work environment. Certain provisions in unemployment and workers’ compensation laws also discourage workforce participation by older employees.
AARP is committed to removing all barriers to employment opportunity and to expanding economic security for workers of all ages.