Record unemployment among older workers does not keep them out of the job market
"workers aged 55 years and older had an average duration of joblessness of 35.5 weeks"
by Emy Sok
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Although the rate of unemployment among older workers is lower than that for their younger counterparts, older persons who do become unemployed spend more time searching for work. In February 2010, workers aged 55 years and older had an average duration of joblessness of 35.5 weeks (not seasonally adjusted), compared with 23.3 weeks for those aged 16 to 24 years and 30.3 weeks for those aged 25 to 54 years. The longer duration of unemployment among older workers also is reflected in a higher proportion of the unemployed who have been jobless for extended periods. For example, nearly half (49.1 percent) of older jobseekers had been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer in February 2010, compared with 28.5 percent of workers aged 16 to 24 years and 41.3 percent of workers aged 25 to 54 years.
Still, rising unemployment rates have not kept older workers from participating in the job market. In fact, the labor force participation rate for persons aged 55 years and older rose during much of the recession, before flattening out recently. This pattern of rising labor force participation for older workers has occurred for both men and women. In contrast, labor force participation rates for other age groups—especially youths—have declined since the recession began.
Rising labor force participation among older persons is likely part of a long–term pattern that began in the mid–1990s, a change that reversed decades of declining labor force participation among individuals in that age group, particularly men. For persons aged 55 years and older, the labor force participation rate increased from a low of 29.2 percent in 1993 to a peak of 40.4 percent in May 2009, the highest rate since March 1962. Since the recent peak in May 2009, the rate has shown little change; it was 40.0 percent in February 2010.
Recently, some reports have suggested that the increased labor force participation of older workers reflects both the need of many near retirees to work after large losses in their retirement accounts and the need of older workers in general to ensure adequate postretirement incomes to address increased life spans. The fact that the rise in labor force participation for this group began well before the recent financial crisis, plus the absence of an accelerated rise in participation rates during the recession, suggests that the collapse in the financial markets and the declines in asset values were not the only factors associated with the recent rise in participation rates among older workers.
Indeed, one underlying reason behind the long–term rise in participation rates among the 55–years–and–older population is the move by employers to replace defined–benefit retirement plans with defined-contribution retirement plans, allowing employers to shift more responsibility for retirement income to the employee. This was a change that gained momentum in the 1990s, coincident with the rise in older workers’ participation rates. Although there are undoubtedly other factors that may have contributed to the rise in older workers’ labor force participation rates, many research papers have found a connection between these changes in retirement funding and those workers’ increased participation rates.
In sum, the recession that began in December 2007 has affected all demographic groups, including older workers. Their unemployment rate, although lower than that for younger workers, recently reached record–high levels. Once unemployed, older workers tend to remain jobless for longer periods than younger workers. Despite the recession—or perhaps because of it—older workers continued to increase their participation in the job market, at least through mid-2009. Whether the long–term pattern of growing labor force participation rates among older workers will continue beyond the recession remains to be seen.
All of these data come from the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly survey of some 60,000 households that is the source of the national unemployment rate and many other labor market indicators. This Issues paper was prepared by Emy Sok, an economist in the Division of Labor Force Statistics, Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics. More info