Senior Citizens at Work

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Everybody knows someone who is still out of work because of the Great Recession. But you may not know many senior citizens who are. A blog entry by the economist Casey B. Milligan on The New York Times website points out that per capita employment of people ages 65 to 74 actually rose between 2007 and 2010, whereas in the population as a whole it fell by 7 percent. On the blog, you can see a nice chart illustrating this contrast, with one line for people ages 65 to 69, one line for people ages 70 to 74--both of these zigging and zagging a little, but ending up at a higher place--and another line for all ages, showing a steady downward slide. Mulligan notes that for those age 75+, the increase is even higher, but this is such a small group of workers that it is left off the chart.

I found this news fascinating because I recently finished working on the manuscript of 150 Best Jobs for a Secure Future, in which I look at career fields and occupations that have more security than most. I also look at the factors that contribute to job security and give suggestions for how you can make your job more secure.

One of the studies (PDF) that Mulligan cites to help explain this phenomenon, by economists at Boston College, looks at unemployment figures for young men and senior men over six past recessions and finds that older men used to have greater job security during slumps but this difference has been eroding. This makes it all the more noteworthy that older workers are bouncing back from unemployment so well. On the other hand, I want to point out that older workers still remain a little more secure, and this seems consistent with my finding, in the research for my book, that the more secure occupations tend to have greater-than-average concentrations of older workers. My own theory, which I have no way of proving, is that over the course of a career, workers in insecure jobs tend to lose them, whereas workers in secure jobs tend to be able to hold on, resulting in a gradual sifting of older workers out of insecure jobs and into secure jobs.

Another factor that may be in play, which was noted by some people who commented on the blog, was that older workers are likely to have better networks for finding jobs.

Mulligan explains the relatively high employment of elderly people by saying that they’re more willing to work. The Boston College study notes that older workers are less discouraged by the physical demands of work than previously because the economy now offers fewer physically demanding jobs. Now that more women are in the workforce, older men may be postponing retirement until their wives (who are, on average, three years younger) reach retirement age. Finally, those workers too young to get Medicare may be motivated to work because of the lack of post-retirement health-care benefits, which used to be a common benefit of employers but has diminished greatly over the past two decades, even as health-care costs have risen dramatically. Several of the people who commented on Mulligan’s article took up this argument, such as the elderly person who wrote, “I would not say that the elderly are ‘willing’ to work so much as they are forced to work.”

Others who left comments noted that the figures don’t indicate which workers are full-time and which are part-time. Many of these employed senior citizens may be holding part-time jobs to supplement retirement income. One wrote, “My spouse and I are senior citizens and we both work part time at two jobs. Employers would rather hire part-timers because they are less expensive. Young people have to find full-time work; empty nesters like us have fewer expenses and can just about make it on two (four all together) part-time jobs. We realize we are being exploited, but what can we do? We must supplement Social Security.”

Here’s the lesson I take away from this: The politicians who would cut back unemployment benefits and slash funding for workforce development want to believe that unemployed young people simply are not trying hard enough to find jobs. But I believe that’s a mistake. Unemployed young people tend to lack job-finding resources and, at the same time, they need jobs that they can build a life on. Their need for work is very different from the need for work experienced by senior citizens.


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