Today’s unemployment report - while good news for the overall economy - reveals that the number of older people in the labor market continues to outpace population growth. While we all know the number of older people is increasing as the Baby Boomers hit retirement age, this isn’t a story about demographics. It’s about a larger percentage of older workers relying on the labor market.
You can see this trend in both the shrinking unemployment rate for older workers and the increase in their labor force participation rate. In November, the unemployment rate for older workers was 3.7%, one of the lowest since the beginning of the recovery in 2010. More people are working or looking for work.
The labor force participation rate, like the unemployment rate, includes both those looking for work as well as those who have jobs. In November, the participation rate for workers 55+ was about 40.2%, close to its peak of 40% in 2012. In 1995, only about 30% of workers over 55 participated in the labor force, an increase of 124% over the past 20 years. As a result, the labor market is flooded with 35 million older workers. In contrast, the number of prime-age workers (those between 25 and 54 years old) has not grown as fast as the prime-age population. The labor force participation rate of prime-age workers fell to about 80.7% from 80.8% in 1995.
Why are more older workers in the labor market? Given the crisis in retirement savings, some are unable to leave due to inadequate savings, the increase in 401(k)-type plans, and the lack of affordable health insurance.
Cutting Social Security benefits through raising the retirement age leaves work as the primary solution to the shortfall in retirement wealth. While it may look good to see an increasing demand for jobs among older people in an expanding economy, this rosy scenario doesn’t account for bargaining power. If the surge in older workers continues, the job market for all workers takes a hit in lower wages and increased competition between old and young.
The solution is to ensure retirement income through Guaranteed Retirement Accounts. This benefits both old and young. Older workers would have the choice to retire at their current standard of living and younger workers will see an increase in the supply of jobs.