More older Americans want to work than ever before. It's tempting this Labor Day to attribute this rise to the current recession. There is no question more people of all ages have been driven to seek work because of the weakness of the economy and the continued hangover from our twin investment and real estate collapses. But there are other forces at work, and they're part of a sustained change that's been going on for more than 20 years.
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The current jobless figures take the headlines, and rightly so. But looking back several decades helps put today's figures in context. In the case of people's desire to find work, the key measure to look at is called the labor force participation rate. This is a self-selected category that is measured in regular government surveys that ask people if they want to work. If they do, they're included in the labor force.
U.S. News looked at labor force participation rates for persons aged 55 and older, going back to 1950 for the broadest measures, and back to the 1980s for some measures of specific groups of older workers.
Low labor force participation rates generally mean that people feel fairly well off, but they also can reflect social patterns. Women, by way of a huge example, have posted a sustained rise in participation rates that's lasted decades. The fact the rate was low in the 1950s didn't mean that women felt well off but that prevailing social norms did not encourage them to work.
Likewise with older workers, changing attitudes are a likely cause of higher participation rates. So are longer life spans and improved health of people in their later years.
In all cases, the lowest labor force participation rates among older persons were posted 15 to 25 years ago. Since then, there has been a steady increase, and it became more pronounced in the past few years. Here are the details for the age groups tracked by the government (seasonally unadjusted):
55 and older. The lowest participation rate since 1950 was 29.2 percent, which was posted in the third quarter of 1993. The rate was 37.1 percent in the second quarter of 2005, and had risen to 40.3 percent in the second quarter of this year.
55 to 64. A low of 54 percent occurred in the third quarter of 1987. The rate was 62.9 percent in mid-2005 and 65.4 percent last quarter.
65 and older. A low of 10.7 percent was reached in the first quarter of 1987. The rate was 15.1 percent five years ago and 17.1 percent last quarter.
65 to 69. A low of 17.8 percent of this age group was in the labor force in the first quarter of 1985. The figure had jumped to 27.6 percent by mid-2005 and to 31.3 percent in June of this year.
70 to 74. Only 9.8 percent of this age group was in the labor force in the first quarter of 1987. By the middle of 2005, the rate had nearly doubled to 17.0 percent. In the second quarter of this year, it stood at 18.1 percent.
75 and older. The labor force participation rate of our oldest employees has also doubled, but from a very small base. In the fourth quarter of 1988, only 4 percent of this age group was in the labor force. By the middle of 2005, that total was 6.6 percent, and it has edged up further in the past five years to 6.9 percent.