Older Worker Employment Reaches Record High

Women and highly educated workers are increasingly delaying retirement.


The proportion of individuals who continue to work after age 55 reached a record high this year. Some 40.2 percent of Americans age 55 and older participated in the labor force in 2010, a number than has increased steadily since 1993 when just 29.4 percent of older Americans worked, according to an Employee Benefit Research Institute analysis of Census Bureau data.

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“This upward trend is not surprising and is likely to continue because of workers’ need for access to employment-based health insurance and for more earning years to accumulate assets in defined contribution (401(k)-type) plans,” writes Craig Copeland, a senior research associate at EBRI, in the report. “There also is an increased desire among many Americans to work longer, particularly among those with more education, for whom more meaningful jobs that can be done well into older ages are often available.”

The uptick in older worker employment is being driven almost exclusively by the increase of women in the workforce. While the labor-force participation rate for older women essentially remained the same between 1975 (23.1 percent) and 1993 (22.8 percent), female employment at age 55 and older then increased consistently and dramatically reaching a record high of 35.1 percent in 2010. The labor force participation rate for older men fell from 49.3 percent in 1975 to 37.7 percent in 1993 before increasing to 46.4 percent in 2010. However, a smaller proportion of older men now work than did in 1975.

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It’s also mainly highly educated individuals who continue to work during the traditional retirement years. Older workers with college degrees are significantly more likely to be in the labor force than those with lower levels of education. For example, 63 percent of individuals age 55 and older with a graduate or professional degree were in the labor force in 2009, compared 56 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree, and 38 percent of those with only a high school diploma. Just 22 percent of people over 55 without at least a high school diploma were still employed in 2009.

Older worker employment declines steadily with age. While 73 percent of people between ages 55 to 59 are employed, that proportion drops to 55 percent of those 60 to 64, and 32 percent of those 65 to 69. Some 18 percent of Americans age 70 to 74 are still in the labor force and so are 7 percent if those age 75 and older.

[See 5 Reasons Older Workers are Delaying Retirement.]

The recession has not deterred individuals age 55 and older from delaying retirement. “The recent economic downturn did not alter the trend of older workers increasingly being in the labor force,” says Copeland. “Rather, it appears that this remains the trend, as more opportunities for older workers exist and there is a greater necessity for them to remain in the labor force to accumulate sufficient or adequate resources for retirement."

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