The Ups and Downs of Older Adult Workers

By George Lorenzo – Published May 13, 2021 in Workforce Monitor – Subscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that by 2024, the U.S. population will include 41 million people age 55 and older, with 13 million people comprising the 65 and older age group. The 65 and older “are projected to have faster rates of labor force growth annually than any other age groups.”

The older adult labor force growth levels are driven by the fact that Boomers are living longer (tragic COVID death rates not withstanding), are healthier, and are more educated than previous generations – all of which increases their likelihood to stay employed. Plus, many Boomers aged 62 and older need to remain in the workforce to supplement their Social Security benefits out of necessity to remain financially solvent. 

Types of Jobs Held by Older Adults
In 2016, more than 42% of workers aged 55 and older were employed in “management, professional, and related occupations, a somewhat higher proportion than that for all workers.” Many of these older adults took on part-time positions. “BLS data show that about 27 percent of workers ages 55 and older, and 18 percent of workers ages 25 to 54, were part time (usually one to 34 hours per week), in 2016. For workers ages 65 and older, the rate of part-time employment is even higher: 40 percent.” 

Self-Employed Older Adults
Additionally, older adult workers are more likely to be self-employed compared to workers in younger groups. “BLS data show that workers in older age groups have higher rates of self-employment than do workers in younger groups. Knowledge and resources gained through years of experience may put older workers in a good position to work for themselves.” 

BLS also lists the following most common self-employment occupations for older adults in 2016: animal trainers; craft artists; door-to door sales workers; news and street vendors and related workers; farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers; fine artists, including painters, sculptors, and illustrators; fishing and hunting workers; hairdressers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists; massage therapists; musicians, singers, and related workers; photographers; tailors, dressmakers, and sewers; and writers and authors. 

Older adults are also lauded as some of the most successful entrepreneurs. As noted in a recent Next Avenue article, “The founders of McDonalds’s, Coca Cola, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, for instance, were all over 50 when they launched their empires.”

Why More Companies Should Consider Hiring Older Adults
In “The Case for Hiring Older Workers,” published by the Harvard Business Review in September 2019,  Josh Bersin and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic present a strong argument for companies to adjust their often ageist thinking to instead support the hiring of older adults. They provide a counter argument to studies done by Deloitte and AARP indicating that as much as two thirds of companies “considered old age a competitive disadvantage,” believing that older adults are less inclined to roll up their sleeves and do the work that their younger peers would be more apt to do. Bersin and Chamorro-Premuzic claim that such thinking is completely inaccurate, and, with job vacancies outnumbering applicants since 2018, older adult workers are needed more than ever. 

It is a myth that older adults are not capable of being productive. For example, scientific evidence shows that “for most people, raw mental horsepower declines after the age of 30, but knowledge and expertise — the main predictors of job performance — keep increasing even beyond the age of 80.”

The Damage to Older Adult Workers Brought On by COVID
Pre-pandemic, employers were increasingly moving away from negative stereotyping of older adult job candidates, says Ramsey Alwin, president and CEO of the National Council on Aging, in a recent WorkingNation “Work in Progress” podcast.  Unfortunately, however, with more than a year of pandemic woes, “we’ve definitely seen a roll back in some of those perceptions.” 

More than one million older adults were job-displaced during the pandemic, and many of them have given up searching for new jobs, due mostly to a pandemic-driven awareness that makes them feel “scared for their own health and wellbeing going back to work,” Alwin adds. In addition, older adult Black, Latinx, and women were “doubly affected by the pandemic’s impact because they’ve been in service industries, low-wage jobs that have been the first to experience the closures, the furloughs.”

Looking at the Brighter Side
Despite all the deterioration due to COVID-19, Alwin is predicting that a “boomerang effect” may take place in which those older adults who opted out will rejoin the workforce “once the opportunities start to become available again,” she says. “Those independent and part-time gigs will be part of the mix, and individuals will pursue those opportunities in new and different ways.” 

In the meantime, Alwin is hoping that more investments in older adult upskilling and training will be increased. Currently, there is only one federal work-based job training program for low-income unemployed older adults – the U.S. Department of Labor Senior Service Employment Program (SCSEP). “At peak funding, it [SCSEP] only served one percent of the older adults eligible for services,” Alwin notes, adding that “we really need to catch up our investments in terms of upskilling and training,” especially during the post-COVID recovery process. 

In a related paper on older adult upskilling and training, Workcred (see WFM summary) observed that 73 percent of older adults who were enrolled in Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)-funded training (69,311) use their funding to earn an industry-recognized certificate or nondegree certification, while 12.7% pursue an occupational license. The top six fields of study are motor vehicle operators (15.9%), computer occupations (11.4%), health technologists and technicians (5.7%), operations specialties managers (4.8%), secretaries and administrative assistants (4.3%), and home health aids and nursing assistants (4.1%). 18.6% comprise the “other” category.

There’s also a current piece of bipartisan legislation aimed at strengthening laws against age discrimination that has been reintroduced in the House and Senate, called the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA). “We’re really excited at the National Council on Aging to see that bipartisan legislation reintroduced. And we’re quite optimistic,” she says. 

“The future of retirement is work, and the future of work is human,” Alwin explains. “And we have to keep humans at the center of work always, thinking about the talents and skills humans uniquely provide our workforce, and make sure we’re investing properly so that we can be the most robust economy and society that maximizes all that human potential.”

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