One of the more 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 either working or looking for work. By 2019, that figure was nearly half of that age group or almost 55 million people. Older workers now make up over 33 percent of the total U.S. workforce age 16 and older.
The coronavirus pandemic in 2020 has likely disrupted this trend. The public health measures required to slow the spread of COVID-19—closures and stay-at-home orders—have contributed to widespread unemployment. Job losses have hit older workers and people from historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups particularly hard. Older workers have lost jobs at a faster rate than others, and many have left the labor force entirely.
However, employment issues facing older workers remain the same. The number of older workers is projected to increase as the population ages. Some older workers opt to delay retirement because they want to continue working. Others keep working 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 important for older workers to have the option to work beyond the traditional retirement age. Longer work lives contribute not only to current financial well-being but also to economic security in retirement.
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 to increase human capital, 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. They are more likely than younger workers to live with disabilities.
Lack of flexible work arrangements can be a barrier to continued employment by older workers. Many need to combine paid work with caregiving responsibilities and often face discrimination as a result of those responsibilities.
Older workers need access to high-quality job search services and job training. Lifelong training and retraining opportunities can help 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. It also makes them more vulnerable to financial shocks.