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 had risen to nearly half of that age group or almost 55 million people. Subsequently, the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the size of the 50 and older workforce to 53.7 million., However, workers age 50 and older still made up over 33 percent of the total U.S. workforce age 16 and older in 2022.
Pandemic-related job losses hit older workers and people from racial and ethnic groups that are discriminated against particularly hard. Yet many employment issues and trends involving older workers remain the same as before the pandemic. Most members of the large Baby Boomer age cohort (born between 1946 and 1964) have now reached traditional retirement age, and many have left the labor force. Overall, however, the number of older workers is still projected to increase. This is because the number of older adults is growing, and labor force participation rates among older workers are expected to rise. Some older workers opt to delay retirement because they want to continue working. Others keep working because they cannot afford to retire. The Bureau of Labor Statistics still projects that those age 65 and older—traditionally retirement age—will be the fastest-growing age group in the workforce in the decade ahead.
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. Investments could increase human capital, create jobs that pay a living wage to workers in the U.S., and prepare workers for the new categories 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 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.
A lack of flexible work arrangements can be a hindrance to older workers’ continued employment. 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 have been 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.