The sour economy may have discouraged many job seekers into giving up the job hunt for now, but that is not the case for those age 55 and older. While labor force participation rates have fallen across most age groups, rates have actually increased for those age 55 and older. In fact, even with higher unemployment rates, the total number of U.S. workers age 55 and older has actually increased in the past two years, while those age 16-19 have suffered the greatest employment losses.
It is worth noting, however, that working at older ages is not an entirely new trend in the United States. In the 1960s and early 1970s the majority of men age 55 and older were in the workforce. That proportion did not dip below 50 percent until 1975, reached its bottom in 1993, and has been increasing since that time. According to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics labor force participation in 1993 was 29 percent for men and women age 55 and older. That figure has risen to more than 40 percent today.
This trend toward longer work-life is driven by longer life expectancy, less secure retirement, and also by job satisfaction. Surveys of the population in Japan, with some of the world's highest rates of labor force participation in older populations, report that half of workers age 60 to 69 reported staying in the workforce because "working is conducive to improved health." This may be more true in today's knowledge-based economy than ever before, as working provides social connections that may fade in retirement.
Nevertheless, older workers tend to earn less than their younger counterparts. For example, workers age 65 and older make, on average, $90 less per week than those in other age groups.
With the aging of the Baby Boom population leading to rapid growth in the oldest age groups, coupled with higher rates of labor force participation, the United States can expect considerable competition in the job market for the foreseeable future. On the positive side, a higher rate of labor force participation means that companies may have an easier time retaining a workforce with many years of experience. Older workers, on the other hand, will need to keep skills sharp in order to overcome the wage gap.