To hear the media tell it, you’d think this is the perfect time for seniors to be looking for work. Last week, just before the March employment numbers came out, USA Today trumpeted the news that 65 percent of all jobs created in February went to workers age 55 or older. That statistic is perfectly accurate—or as accurate as figures based on a household survey can be—but what does it mean? Are employers now embracing mature, experienced workers? Or, more ominously, has the financial crisis so depleted our nest eggs that no one can afford to retire anymore? Those explanations might make good copy, but neither one holds much water. Dig deeper and a more mundane explanation emerges: the number of seniors with jobs is growing because there are more older people and fewer younger people.
Let’s turn to the data. You can’t learn much about older workers from looking at a single month because the numbers are so volatile. For example, the Current Population Survey—the government household survey used to compile the official employment stats—shows that employment among Americans age 55 and older increased 277,000 in February but fell 47,000 in March. Instead, let’s consider trends over the past 12 months. And let’s ignore employment swings among those younger than 25, many of whom are in school and only marginally attached to the labor force.
What we find is that between March 2011 and March 2012, the number of employed adults age 25 or older increased by 1.9 million. Nearly five of six (1.6 million) were age 55 or older. Only 332,000 of the additional employed workers were age 25 to 54. This sounds consistent with the media’s storyline, but here’s the rub: over the same period, the number of adults age 55 and older grew by 2.8 million, while the number age 25 to 54 fell by 321,000. Simply put, over the past 12 months there were more 54-year-olds (born in 1957 or 1958, near the peak of the baby boom) turning 55 than 24-year-olds turning 25. This confirms what those of us following the workforce’s shifting demographics have been saying for years. As the population ages and the pool of younger workers shrinks, firms will increasingly turn to older workers to meet their employment needs.
Because population sizes are changing, we need to compare employment-to-population ratios to really assess how different groups are faring in the recovering labor market. Viewed through that lens, outcomes have improved somewhat over the past 12 months for adults on both sides of 55.Between March 2011 and March 2012, the share of adults employed rose by the same half a percentage point at both ages 25 to 54 and 55 and older. The employment-to-population ratio remained about the same at ages 55 to 61, increased by more than half a point at ages 62 to 64 and 70 and older, and declined by nearly a point at ages 65 to 69. All in all, younger workers seem to be sharing in the recent employment gains about as much as older workers.
Seniority still matters, so older workers are less likely than younger ones to lose their jobs. But when laid off, seniors take much longer to become reemployed. And once they find a job, it usually pays much less than their previous position. That’s the story that needs to be told today about older workers.
Employment-to-Population Ratios by Age, March 2011 and March 2012
Source: Author’s calculations from Bureau of Labor Statistics data.