Will Older Workers Stay Home?

Many older Americans reacted to the financial crisis of 2008 by deciding not to retire. Some who had retired went back to work if they could do so. And that trend continued for the next decade.

Now the question is whether that trend is over – another victim of the pandemic.

The proportion of people working in every age group – young and old, male and female — has fallen sharply in the recession.

There is some indication that a higher proportion of older workers may have left jobs during the pandemic. But even with the recent declines, the proportion of older men with jobs remains close to or higher than it was 14 years ago – before the financial crisis.

How many older people, amid this pandemic, will decide not to return to work even when they can do so? If the two-month snapback for jobs, May and June, is any indication, a lot of elder folk will sit this recovery out, at least until a vaccine is available (see table 1).

Table 1

Not everyone can afford to be so cautious, of course. But the safety net for the elderly is still intact. Social Security payments have not been hurt, and defined contribution plans – 401ks – have come roaring back with the stock market after falling sharply early in the pandemic. It is reasonable to suspect that a greater proportion of elderly workers can choose to avoid working.

The financial crisis that began in 2008 was a watershed moment for the economy – and for the behavior of older people. A significant number of older men and women chose to delay retirement or even return to work if they could do so.

Part of that no doubt was caused by the fear that retirement savings that had seemed ample no longer did. The stock market lost more than half its value from 2007 peak to the 2010 low. The market came back, but that experience – and the fact many people reduced the stock holdings in retirement accounts when the market was low – may have persuaded some people that it was safer to keep working if they could. Even as the share of younger people with jobs declined in the Great Recession, older workers were more likely to stay employed

Consider the trends in the employment to population ratio. That is simply the number of people in a given age group with jobs divided by the total population in that group. Some without jobs are unemployed, of course, but others have chosen not to work – because they are retired, or in school, or stay-at-home parents.

The government reports the figure for five-year age cohorts, but most of those figures are not seasonally adjusted, and can sometimes be volatile due to small sample sizes in the government’s household survey.

The accompanying charts show the average ratio for each group from April to June – the three months when employment collapsed as a result of the pandemic, and compares that number to the comparable figures for a year earlier, and to the same period in 2006, prior to the financial crisis.

Most age groups of men had not gotten back to 2006 levels before the pandemic, despite a decade of job growth. Women had generally done better than men. But older men and older women, defined as those 60 and higher, are still employed at rates close to or above the levels for the same groups in 2006.

As I noted above, Table 1 captures a few months when older workers exited jobs during the pandemic at a considerably faster clip than the prime working age groups, between 25 and 54.

If many older workers chose to stay out of the work force until the Pandemic threat is over – possibly years from now – that could have significant effects on the workplace.

It might open up jobs and promotions for younger workers, but it could also increase the impact of the aging of the American population. In 2006, people between 25 and 54 years of age – the prime working years — made up 55% of the population over 16 (see Table 2). Now that figure is 48%. The proportion of younger people has also declined. But the population of older people has soared, with those over 65 going from 16% to 21%. As baby boomers age, those trends will continue.

If fewer older people are willing to work, some businesses may find it harder to attract enough employees, even if pay scales rise. The obvious way to offset a dearth of younger workers is through immigration, but political hostility to that remains significant.

Table 2