Number of Older Americans at Work Has Grown 35 Percent

Reasons cited are longer life, lack of retirement savings, high housing and health care costs

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie February 2, 2018
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​There are now far more Americans ages 65 and older in the workforce than three decades ago, and the number of employed older Americans rose by nearly 35 percent just between 2011 and 2016, according to a December 2017 study by SeniorLiving.org.

In fact, this group of workers is projected to be the fastest-growing segment in the workforce through 2024.

"Several factors influence how long people stay in the labor force," said Jen Schramm, SHRM-SCP, senior strategic policy advisor for labor market issues at the AARP Public Policy Institute. "Increasing longevity means that people need to finance a longer period of retirement. Many people have not saved enough money for retirement and are facing increased costs of living—particularly burdensome are housing costs and medical expenses."

In 2011, 6.6 million Americans age 65 or older were working in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In 2016, 8.9 million people were—an increase of nearly 35 percent.

Management, sales and office support are the top three occupations for those 65 and older, according to the study from SeniorLiving.org, which offers a directory of resources for seniors on everything from independent living to hospice care. The study authors analyzed BLS data to determine changes in employment for older Americans.

Older Americans with College Degrees Have More Opportunities to Stay at Work

The AARP has studied older-worker employment trends dating back more than three decades. It found that in 1985, Americans age 65 or older made up about 11 percent of the workforce, with older men at 15 percent and older women at just over 7 percent overall.

In 2017, the percentage of this age group in the workforce had grown to 19.3 percent, with men at roughly 24 percent and women at roughly 16 percent, according to the AARP.

So which positions do most older Americans occupy?

The occupations most often held by older Americans have remained relatively the same since 2011, but the number of employees in each field has increased. 

Management occupations were the top field for older Americans, with about 1.4 million employed in this field in 2016, according to SeniorLiving.org. Between 2014 and 2015, the number of older workers in this sector increased by about 13 percent.

 [SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Older Workers]

"Workers with higher levels of education often have more opportunities to remain in the workforce at older ages," Schramm said. "Workers in occupations and with skills that are in high demand may have the opportunity to work longer if employers provide incentives to remain in the workforce."

The BLS defines management positions as chief executives and legislators, as well as managerial jobs in advertising and marketing, public relations, computer and information systems, human resources, industrial production, transportation and storage, agriculture, construction, education, architecture, engineering, food service, funeral service, gaming, lodging, medical and health services, and real estate.

Sales was the industry that employed the second-highest number of older Americans, with about 1.2 million employed.

The BLS defines sales jobs as cashiers, counter and rental clerks, and certain positions in advertising, insurance, securities commodities and financial services, travel, wholesale and manufacturing, telemarketing and real estate.

"Analysis of BLS data indicates that workers ages 50 and older working part-time are more likely to be working in the service sector than their full-time counterparts," Schramm said. "One of the possible reasons for this could be that older workers who are looking to work part-time rather than full-time may find more options in service-sector occupations such as retail and sales. Another factor could be a desire for more-flexible scheduling."

Office support was the industry that employed the third-highest number of older Americans, with about 1 million employed.

Older Americans occupied the fewest number of positions as teachers. Only 5 percent of the people who teach in elementary and middle schools in 2016 were older Americans. College and university teachers seemed to fare better, however, as they made up about 11.3 percent of that  workforce.

"Despite universities trying to buy out older professors, retirement offers are being declined, so tenured staff can continue working postsecondary teaching positions, with 15 percent planning to stay until they're 80," the report authors wrote.

Women vs. Men

The study indicates that while the percentage of older American women who stay at work is lower than the percentage of older American men, the former plan to work longer than men, said Melody Kasulis, project manager for SeniorLiving.org.

"I'd speculate and say that it could be for multiple reasons like better health, length of life, desire to stay busy after their children have left the household," she said. "The cost of living has a lot to do with the extra years people in the retirement age group are trying to put in."

Said Schramm: "AARP research has found that among people ages 65 to 74 who are currently working or looking for work, 35 percent cite the need for money as the most important factor in their decision to work. Finances are therefore likely a key factor for many women working later in life. Approximately 19 percent of people ages 65 to 74 say that the most important factor in their decision to work is that they enjoy working."

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