Are Americans working later and later in life, and what does this mean for them?

Summary: This article briefly looks at the trend of the aging workforce—sensationalized or real? It also touches on some of the positive and negative impacts of that potential trend. 

In the last decade or so, the media has begun talking about the so-calledgraying” of the American workforce—the idea that people are working later in life and retiring later, if at all.  Sometimes this is talked about in almost apocalyptic terms when it comes to productivity and benefits.  First, this article touches on the actual extent to which that is true.  Second, because a lot of coverage of this phenomenon seems to be from a “macro” (i.e., employer’s) perspective, this article briefly explores some of the implications of that trend for the workers’ themselves.

First of all, this is a real trend: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the share of the workforce age 75 or over will almost double by 2030.  This is in large part driven by the Baby Boomer generation.  However, in absolute terms this “problem” may be bit overblown by the media: those same projections say the share of the workforce in the 55-74 age bracket will actually decrease by 2030, and even the 75+ age bracket will be less than 12 percent of the workforce by 2030.  In addition, while the average age of retirement is going up, it is doing so slowly, creeping up by approximately 3 years since the early 1990s.  Life expectancy overall has been increasing, though not during the pandemic years; it remains to be seen if the upward trend in that resumes.  Though not some immediate existential threat, this aging of the population likely will put increasing pressure on our social safety nets.          

And that brings us to our next topic, how this affects individual people.  First, the good.  There is evidence working later can have benefits beyond the financial.  Various studies have shown that continuing to work as you get older can overall have mental and physical health benefits and improve your own longevity.  However, it is important to note that these benefits generally apply to more meaningful jobs with less physical labor and shorter or more flexible hours.  In short, a good work environment is good for your health, especially as you get older.  

Then, the bad.  While it is true that the population as a whole is older on average now, probably the primary reason the workforce in particular is aging is because pensions and other retirement plans offered by employers have become less favorable and less dependable since the 1980s.  This means workers may feel pressured to stay in jobs longer than they would prefer to, all else equal.  People may have anxiety about the financial pressures of retiring when they actually want to, as retiring “too early.”  Many Americans now expect to retire much later than the average retirement age, as a result.  This suggests that employers should do better in supporting their employees. 

In addition—and to bring this around to the law—the incidence of age discrimination may be increasing.  In particular, if the workforce is aging, the fact that statistically the oldest workers face the most age discrimination has troubling implications.  Employers ostensibly worried about “productivity” may stereotype older workers or enact policies that have a disparate impact on older workers.  While it is possible that an overall aging population will raise awareness of this issue, it is still often the case that many people do not even perceive age discrimination as wrong, much less realize that it is illegal when it comes to workers over 40.  Often it is easy for employers to conflate age and salary and use that as an excuse to do away with older workers.    

People having to work at an older and older age is a complex issue, and it remains to be seen how significant this trend will be—or if the doomsayers are right.  In the here and now, if you have concerns that you may be experiencing discrimination based on your age, you should contact an employment attorney like those at Rob Wiley, P.C.

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