Healthy surge in older workers

Since 2000, nearly all the increase in U.S. employment has been attributed to an increase in workers 55 years old and older.

Employment gains of those 55 and older has outstripped job gains of those under 55 by 18 to 1. As highlighted in his blog post, “Older Workers Account for All Net Job Growth Since 2000,” William Emmons, lead economist with the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, notes that “all of the net increase in employment since 2000 — about 17 million jobs — has been among workers aged 55 and older.”

Mr. Emmons’ surprising findings were based on data from 2000 to 2017. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the number of employees aged 55 and over rose steadily from 2000 through 2018, increasing by more than 18 million. In contrast, the number of employees under 55 suffered significant declines during and after the two recessions that struck in the 2000s including the relatively short, eight-month recession from March to November 2001 and the relatively long and deep, 18-month recession from December 2007 to June 2009 (see chart).

The surge in the older workforce is about to level off, though, as the last of the baby boomers turn 55 in 2019; however, the portion of older workers who are employed has grown significantly over the last 20 to 30 years. Consequently, older workers will continue to account for a significant portion of the employed. According to the Harvard Health Letter Working later in life can pay off in more than just income. “(T)he U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2017 that 32% of people ages 65 to 69 were working, and 19% of people ages 70 to 74 were employed. The projection for 2024 is that 36% of people ages 65 to 69 will be in the labor force, far more than the 22% who were working in 1994.” Among other issues, this increase in older workers has important implications for society, including the productivity of our workplaces and the health of older workers.

Productivity of older workers

Some economists have expressed concerns that the increase in older workers might result in declines in productivity. Others propose older workers are not as adaptable to new technology. As consumers, older people are unlikely to adopt to new technology as rapidly as younger people. The Pew Research Center’s report “Technology Adoption by Baby Boomers” (and everybody else) provides insight into how different generations adopt new technology, such as the Internet, cellphones and smartphones; the report shows fairly small differences in the use of the Internet and cellphones by generation, but larger differences in the use of smartphones and social media.

In the workplace, though, older workers seem to be as or even more adaptable to changes in technology than younger workers. Consequently, concerns about a decline in productivity relative to the aging of the workforce seem unfounded. As noted in the research paper, “Health Status of Older US Workers and Nonworkers, National Health Interview Survey, 1997-2001,” sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “older workers are a valuable addition to the workplace because they are on average just as productive as, are more careful and emotionally stable than, and have lower rates of absenteeism than their younger counterparts.” Likewise, according Andy Patrizio (2016) of CIO magazine, a survey of “more than 4,000 information workers in the U.S. and Europe revealed that older workers are less likely than their younger colleagues to find using technology in the workplace stressful. Just one-quarter of the respondents who are 55 or older said that they find tech in the workplace stressful. Meanwhile, 36% of the respondents who are 18 to 34 years old — the ones who supposedly grew up with technology — said they find tech in the workplace stressful. In another finding that contradicts a stereotype involving older people and technology, the survey also found that older workers experience less trouble working with multiple devices than their younger colleagues do. Only 13% of respondents in the 55-plus group reported such issues, compared to 37% in the 18-to-34-year-old category.”

Work longer and live longer

People who work later in life might also live longer. According to the CDC paper cited above, “employed older adults had better health outcomes than unemployed older adults. A strong association exists between employment and health status in older adults beyond what can be explained by socioeconomic factors (eg, education, income) or health behaviors (eg, smoking).” On the flip side, the CDC study also noted, “being unemployed/retired was associated with the greatest risk of poor health across all health status measures, even after controlling for smoking status, obesity, and other predictors of health.” Similarly, research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found those who worked just one year after their retirement age had about a 10% lower risk of dying; two takeaways from that 2016 study were “early retirement may be a risk factor for mortality and prolonged working life may provide survival benefits” and “the relation between retirement age and mortality did not vary across sociodemographic subgroups.”

Workplace and social implications

Even as the baby boomers join the ranks of the elderly, they continue to have profound effects on the workplace. With our current historically low unemployment rates, baby boomers provide a needed labor supply without noticeable declines in productivity. Social and economic policies to accommodate elderly workers, such as flexible hours and shorter work weeks, as well as incentives to encourage them to work a few more years might also improve the outlook for Social Security and Medicare without impairing the health of elderly workers.