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Older Adult Employment: 2021 Annual Report

· Updated: November 01, 2021

Workers over the age of 55 represent a huge and essential segment of the American economy, and their influence is growing. In fact, by 2030, one in four U.S. workers will be 55 or older.1

In part because they account for such a large share of the workforce, older adults have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, and many states had a decline in the number of workers over 55 remaining in the workforce. But overall, the 55-and-older workforce is showing signs of steady recovery, which should continue into 2022. In addition, a worker shortage may create ideal conditions for seniors who lost their jobs to re-enter the labor force with higher wages.

To update an analysis we first conducted last year, we studied data from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine where seniors are gaining (and losing) jobs, how they have fared over the course of the pandemic, and how this essential workforce segment will change over the next few months.

Key findings:

  • There was a net loss of more than 366,000 people aged 55 and up from the U.S. workforce between August 2020 and August 2021.
  • Workers aged 55 and older were much more likely to be laid off or let go during the pandemic than younger adults.
  • Fewer than 20 states had a net gain in the number of employed workers aged 55 and older between 2020 and 2021. Nebraska had the highest growth, with a 17 percent increase.
  • Covid's impact on older workers is receding. Only 15 percent say they're working remotely or not at all because of the pandemic; in May 2020, that number was 54 percent.

Covid-19's Impact on Older Workers

In March 2020, as the Covid crisis began to spread and business shutdowns were common, the number of older adults in the workforce dropped by nearly four million from the previous month. By August 2021, the number of older Americans in the workforce rebounded to 96 percent of its pre-pandemic level and is continuing to rise. The unemployment rate for this age group is also declining. In fact, the unemployment rate among Americans 55 and older was around 4 percent in August 2021, compared to nearly 8 percent in the same month last year.

Some states have rebounded faster than others though. In the past year, 18 states have had a net increase in the number of older adults participating in the workforce. Nebraska's increase was the highest, a 17 percent jump, while New Mexico's share of older adults in the workforce dropped by 15 percent.

Older worker labor force by state and percentage change, 2020-2021

State Workers aged 55+
August 2020
Workers aged 55+
August 2021
% change
Nebraska 250,985 293,056 17%
District of Columbia 65,054 75,001 15%
Utah 281,089 319,094 14%
North Carolina 1,114,757 1,234,845 11%
Arizona 792,414 876,309 11%
Indiana 693,028 760,494 10%
New Hampshire 209,055 229,340 10%
Ohio 1,384,262 1,496,372 8%
Oregon 526,227 566,884 8%
Wyoming 82,395 88,555 7%
Louisiana 481,872 514,792 7%
Florida 2,590,991 2,710,717 5%
California 4,223,817 4,405,634 4%
Mississippi 277,473 289,010 4%
Georgia 1,017,494 1,048,936 3%
Kansas 354,802 364,461 3%
South Carolina 561,591 566,363 1%
West Virginia 198,300 199,206 0%
Iowa 415,957 416,921 0%
Connecticut 563,599 557,418 -1%
Montana 134,765 133,094 -1%
Alaska 89,323 87,866 -2%
New York 2,330,725 2,288,201 -2%
Texas 2,970,244 2,904,410 -2%
Pennsylvania 1,625,207 1,587,835 -2%
Vermont 97,482 94,493 -3%
Massachusetts 956,305 924,709 -3%
Virginia 1,123,657 1,086,352 -3%
North Dakota 92,693 89,357 -4%
Washington 782,343 754,025 -4%
South Dakota 143,714 137,789 -4%
Minnesota 798,689 762,615 -5%
New Jersey 1,148,505 1,093,638 -5%
Hawaii 174,788 166,428 -5%
Delaware 126,562 119,962 -5%
Rhode Island 141,253 133,453 -6%
Illinois 1,481,047 1,377,877 -7%
Missouri 735,093 681,596 -7%
Maine 214,096 198,001 -8%
Alabama 536,561 494,535 -8%
Tennessee 781,812 718,615 -8%
Oklahoma 478,688 433,698 -9%
Arkansas 332,752 301,004 -10%
Michigan 1,286,745 1,163,155 -10%
Wisconsin 800,564 722,008 -10%
Idaho 216,292 194,558 -10%
Nevada 347,050 308,645 -11%
Kentucky 518,315 454,640 -12%
Maryland 897,562 784,766 -13%
Colorado 694,278 599,961 -14%
New Mexico 233,626 198,676 -15%

Source: August 2020 and 2021 Current Population Survey

Accounting for changes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, workers 55 and older had a net loss of about 366,000 jobs across the country between 2020 and 2021. Michigan, Illinois, and Maryland each lost more than 100,000 senior workers over the past year.

Though the group has shrunk in numbers over the past year, Covid-19's impact on these workers has lessened in recent months. In May 2020, 54 percent of workers 55 and older were either working remotely or unable to work because of the virus. Today, that figure is only 15 percent, and may continue to decline as more older adults have the ability to receive a third vaccine dose.

There were only slight differences between younger workers and older ones when it comes to pandemic impact, but workers under 55 were working remotely with greater consistency over the past year, while those over 55 were more likely not to be able to work because of the virus. This may be due in part to older people being much more vulnerable to severe forms of the virus, including hospitalization and death.2

Another issue that has held back older workers is that they were much more likely to have been laid off than their younger counterparts. Among unemployed people, 22 percent of those over 55 were unemployed because of layoff or job loss compared to just 14 percent of those under 55.

Percentage of unemployed people who lost their job or were laid off

Age group Percent who lost job or were laid off
18-54 14%
55-64 20%
65-74 24%
75+ 34%

Source: August 2021 Current Population Survey

However, for those who've been laid off or otherwise left the workforce during Covid-19, the current labor shortage could create opportunities for some older workers to re-enter the job market with higher wages and better benefits. With plenty of open positions especially in retail, hospitality, and food service,3 the next few months could be a great time to re-enter the workforce as a senior citizen.

Occupations Dominated by Older Adults

In addition to analyzing the Covid-19 impact on older workers, we also looked at what jobs are most likely to be held by those 55 and older. Almost nine in 10 podiatrists in the U.S. are 55 and older, and there are a handful of other jobs that are much more likely to be held by older workers than younger ones, including financial examiner (84 percent), library technician (76 percent), and furniture finishers (70 percent).

Jobs with Most 55+ Workers

Occupation % workers aged 55+
Extruding and drawing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 90%
Podiatrists 89%
Financial examiners 84%
Engine and other machine assemblers 78%
Library technicians 76%
Upholsterers 71%
Furniture finishers 70%
Models, demonstrators, and product promoters 68%
Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers 64%
Stationary engineers and boiler operators 62%
Optometrists 59%
Crossing guards 58%
Tool and die makers 57%
Proofreaders and copy markers 56%
Plasterers and stucco masons 56%
Maintenance workers, machinery 55%
Motor vehicle operators, all other 55%
Electrical, electronics, and electromechanical assemblers 55%
Jewelers and precious stone and metal workers 55%
Shoe and leather workers and repairers 54%

Source: August 2021 Current Population Survey

Aside from podiatrists and optometrists, many of the occupations with older workers are in hands-on roles like shoe and leather workers, machinery maintenance workers, and plasterers. In many cases, jobs like these are shrinking as technology continues to displace some human workers.

Impact of Older Workers Will Continue to Grow in 2022 and Beyond

Before the pandemic, BLS researchers had predicted that those over 55 would account for 25 percent of the American workforce in 2030, so the likelihood is that older workers will continue to reenter the workforce following the pandemic. Though their numbers shrunk, older adults are an undeniable driving force in the American economy, accounting for nearly 24 percent of U.S. workers, a share that's slightly greater than those between the ages of 25 and 34.

Labor force makeup by age group

Age group 2000 2010 2020 2030*
55+ 13.1% 19.5% 23.6% 25.1%
45-54 21.8% 23.4% 20% 19.9%
35-44 26.3% 21.7% 21.1% 22.7%
25-34 23% 21.8% 22.7% 21.3%
16-24 15.8% 13.6% 12.6% 11.0%

*Projected. Data may not sum to 100% due to rounding.
Source: Labor force share by age group, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Conclusion

Like all U.S. workers, those over 55 are experiencing a gradually improving employment picture. As the makeup of the American workforce continues to experience a fundamental shift, and as the nation continues to age, there's every reason to believe older workers will expand their influence. Given the current labor shortage, 2022 could be a prime opportunity for senior workers to re-enter the workforce with higher pay and stronger benefits or switch into companies who will provide better compensation.

Methodology

We analyzed data from the August 2020 and August 2021 Current Population Surveys, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

References

  1. https://www.bls.gov/emp/graphics/2019/labor-force-share-by-age-group.htm
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/index.htm#SexAndAge
  3. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/09/01/raising-wages-isnt-enough-to-attract-and-keep-workers-experts-say-.html