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A by-the-numbers look at older workers

By David Hugh Smith

In the 1970s and early 1980s businesses were filling up with young Baby Boomer workers. Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — the generation that grooved to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and that scared the begebees out their elders for their sometimes rebellious ways — were drawing paychecks.

As a young Boomer, I remember at the dawn of the ‘70s being alarmed by what my dad was telling me about how our country, as I knew it, might be destroyed because the younger generation — my generation — was forsaking norms like working for a living and serving in Vietnam, and might be strong enough at some point to overturn the folks who fought in WWII. People like…him.

Baby Boomers didn’t end up overthrowing America. Anything but! Most Boomers ultimately became “establishment.” (As a reference, see the wonderful 1983 movie “The Big Chill.”)

And now, we are living in an era that also celebrates youth, as well as new ideas and new technology. Baby Boomers are the older generation. And some of them are struggling to stay employed in a working world that has forgotten the time not that long ago when Boomers were young and cutting edge and a force to be reckoned with.

Meanwhile, “Generation X” also deserves a nod. These are the folks born immediately after the Baby Boomers through to the early 1980s. Many Gen Xers now are in their late 40s and early 50s, and face similar issues.

With that in mind, I share some facts I’ve gleaned from the US Census Bureau, from AARP, and other sources as a way to begin understanding the dynamics of our older generation in the workplace. (If you’ve turned 50 it’s likely you’ve started to get mail from what was formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.)

Some Facts about older workers

  • Baby Boomers started turning 65 in 2011. At that time, there were just under 77 million people in this population. (That number, sadly, is gradually decreasing.)
  • All Baby Boomers will be age 65 and over by 2029 — at which point more than 20 percent of the US population will have reached this traditional retirement milepost.
  • The ratio of persons aged 65 and over rose to over 18 percent by 2015 from only 12 percent in the mid-’90s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • From “The End of Retirement,” an article in by Katherine S. Newman and Rebecca Hayes Jacobs published this month in The Nation: Nearly half of all private-sector employees had no company-sponsored retirement plan last year. Meanwhile, the fastest-growing segment of American labor consists of full-time workers over the age of 65, a fact likely due to retirement insecurity.
  • According to James Spletzer, Principal Economist at the Center for Economic Studies. “Inflation-adjusted average monthly earnings of persons aged 65 and older were $4,092 in 2015, which is substantially higher than the $2,276 statistic in 1994.”
  • As of this February workers aged 55 and older enjoyed a lower unemployment rate — 3.2 percent — than the rate for the entire US population.
  • According to a report in USA Today, 39.2 percent of people 55 and older were working in December 2018, the highest level since 1961.
  • Low unemployment, more older workers at work, pressure on employers to bring long-term unemployed back into the workforce, and to pay all employees more, likely will help the many individuals who have not saved enough to retire. A recent Bankrate survey very alarmingly found that 20 percent of Americans aren’t saving anything, or don’t have any income at all.
  • From AARP comes encouraging news that workers age 50+ are perceived to have the soft skills employers need. “American business faces a skills crisis with 40% of companies reporting difficulty filling jobs due to a lack of available talent. Overwhelmingly, business leaders point to soft skills — professionalism, written communications skills, analytical skills, and interpersonal skills — as the critical piece that is often missing from their talent pools. 50+ workers have spent decades honing soft skills, which can continue to improve until very late in life.”
  • Also from the AARP: “50+ workers are more motivated than younger workers. Towers Watson research says older workers are more motivated to exceed expectations on the job than their younger counterparts. Motivation is strongly tied to employee engagement, and better engagement means better bottom-line financial performance. “


Over all, things don’t look bad for older workers, statistically speaking. But these statistics don’t necessarily do the deep dive and factor in the older workers who wanted to work but gave up looking years ago — or who are working, but not as much or at the level of responsibility they desire. A 58-year-old male or female, stocking shelves at Target, is employed, but not necessarily happily so.

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