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.
- 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+
|Workers aged 55+
|District of Columbia||65,054||75,001||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|
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%|
|Engine and other machine assemblers||78%|
|Models, demonstrators, and product promoters||68%|
|Power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers||64%|
|Stationary engineers and boiler operators||62%|
|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
*Projected. Data may not sum to 100% due to rounding.
Source: Labor force share by age group, Bureau of Labor Statistics
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.
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.