Older workers, generally defined as those aged 55 and above, make vital contributions to the U.S. economy. Older Americans contribute an estimated 40% of the national economic output despite making up just 35% the population. Over the past two decades, the share of workers 55 and older has almost doubled, increasing from 13% in 2000 to 23% in 2021. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects this growth will continue and, by 2031, fully one quarter of the labor force will be 55 years or older.
However, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted older workers’ ability to stay in the labor market. From the start of the pandemic, older workers exited the labor force in large numbers because of virus mitigation efforts and the disproportionate risks that older workers faced in the workplace. While some older workers were able to make use of telework and economic stimulus payments to stay connected to the workforce and delay retirement, this was not the reality for all older workers. In fact, the pandemic recession was unlike more recent economic recessions in that it disproportionately impacted older workers compared to their mid-career counterparts.
Not all older workers were equally affected by the pandemic—age, race and education shape the experiences of older workers in the labor market. Job losses for workers 65 and older, older workers of color and older workers with less education were particularly pronounced during the pandemic recession. As a result, poverty rates for those 65 and older increased in 2021.
The experience of older workers during the coronavirus pandemic is emblematic of the long-standing challenges they have faced:
Age discrimination creates unlawful barriers for older workers in their employment.
Retirement insecurity is eroding the agency of older workers to freely decide whether to continue working or retire.
The returns from additional years of experience, and general worker bargaining power, have weakened over the years.
Older workers have seen their jobs grow more physically demanding and dangerous.
Overcoming these challenges will require a broad basket of policy solutions. This starts by obtaining a better understanding of the specific needs of older workers with a Bureau for Older Workers. Policies aimed at protecting older workers from discrimination and improving access to retirement savings plans would also strengthen the economic security of older workers and improve the economic participation of all workers in the economy.