Older Workers Account for 26 Percent of Net Job Losses in 2020

· Published: January 24, 2021

By SeniorLiving.org Research | Updated January 28th 

About 37 million Americans 55 and older were employed in 2019, making up the largest share of the workforce by age group. So it’s little wonder that when the pandemic caused the economy to grind to a halt, older workers carried a heavier burden.

In May, 2020 we analyzed the types of jobs held by older adults ages 55+, and we wanted to understand how the bad times have affected seniors in the workforce. How many are unemployed and which types of jobs are due for the strongest bounceback as unemployment continues to fall?

We examined the most recent jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well as data the agency reported throughout the year.

Read on for the full study, and check out the key findings below:

  • Older adults are now a great proportion of unemployed. At the end of 2020, 26 percent of those unemployed were 55 or older; compared to 23 percent at the end of 2019.
  • The unemployment rate for older workers rose faster than other age groups, growing from 2.4-6 percent (+467 percent). For all workers, the rate grew from 3.6-6.7 percent (+311percent).
  • Among adults older than 25, the highest monthly unemployment rate was recorded by women 55 and older (15 percent in April 2020).
  • Seniors make up 31 percent of workers in legal occupations, and this occupational group had the largest increase in the unemployment rate between 2019 and 2020, which could signal a slow rebound for older workers.

COVID-19 Impact on Older Workers

At the end of December 2020, about six percent of workers over the age of 55 were unemployed. Since 2020 was a year unlike any other, it’s helpful to put older workers in the context of the broader economy.

Since 1999, those 55 and older have become an increasingly crucial part of the American workforce. Accounting for just under 13 percent two decades ago, 55-and-up workers are now the largest group in the workforce. They make up just under 23 percent, roughly a half-percentage point more than those between the ages of 25 and 34. And by the end of this decade, they’re expected to represent about one in four American workers.

As a group, they tend to have lower unemployment rates than other workers, but COVID-19 upended those trends. In fact, while older people account for about 23 percent of all workers, by the end of December 2020, they made up 26 percent of net job losses.

Net job losses by age group*

16-19

4.2%

20-24

13.3%

25-34

21.4%

35-44

19.6%

45-54

15.5%

55+

26.0%

* Individuals unemployed in December 2020 compared to 2019 monthly average

The year was marked with upheaval in many ways, and joblessness was no different. At the end of 2019, the jobless rate in the U.S. was 3.6 percent for all workers but only 2.4 percent for those 55 and older. In a normal month, those 55 and up would have the lowest jobless rate among all age groups, but at the height of pandemic-related job losses (April to June), unemployment rates for older workers were the second-highest.

Unemployment rate by month and age group

Month

16+

16-19

20-24

25-34

35-44

45-54

55+

Dec 2019

3.6%

13%

6.6%

3.7%

2.8%

2.5%

2.4%

Jan 2020

3.5%

12.6%

6.6%

3.8%

2.7%

2.4%

2.6%

Feb 2020

3.5%

11.5%

6.3%

3.7%

2.7%

2.5%

2.6%

Mar 2020

4.4%

14.1%

8.6%

4.2%

3.4%

3.2%

3.3%

Apr 2020

14.8%

32.1%

25.6%

14.6%

11.5%

12.3%

13.6%

May 2020

13.3%

29.6%

23.1%

13.4%

10.1%

10.7%

11.8%

June 2020

11.1%

22.6%

19.6%

11.7%

9%

8.4%

9.6%

July 2020

10.2%

19.1%

18.1%

11.3%

8%

7.8%

8.7%

Aug 2020

8.4%

16.4%

14.1%

9.6%

6.4%

6.2%

7.6%

Sep 2020

7.8%

16.3%

12.5%

8.6%

6.2%

6.4%

6.6%

Oct 2020

6.9%

14%

10.9%

7.3%

5.8%

6%

5.5%

Nov 2020

6.7%

13.9%

10.7%

7%

5.6%

5.5%

5.8%

Dec 2020

6.7%

16%

11.2%

6.6%

5.5%

5.3%

6%

By April 2020, the month when joblessness peaked in the U.S., unemployment was up by more than 300 percent overall and nearly 500 percent for older workers. In fact, the overall increase in the jobless rate was higher for 55+ workers than any other group.

Unemployment rate increase by age group, December 2019-April 2020

16+

311.1%

16-19

146.9%

20-24

287.9%

25-34

294.6%

35-44

310.7%

45-54

392.0%

55+

466.7%

Gender Gap

Men and women tend to have similar unemployment rates, but female workers have been much harder hit by pandemic-related job losses. In fact, in December 2020, women accounted for 100 percent of the net jobs lost that month. And from April and September, older women had a higher unemployment rate than older men.

Among age groups that typically have low unemployment rates, women 55 and older had the highest single-month unemployment rate in 2020 — 15.4 percent in April. The peak for male workers in that age group (and every other age group, for that matter) was also in April, but their jobless rate that month was just over 12 percent.

Unemployment rate by month, 55+ men vs. women

Unemployment rate increase by age group, December 2019-April 2020

Month

Men

Women

Dec 2019

2.3%

2.6%

Jan 2020

2.7%

2.5%

Feb 2020

2.8%

2.4%

Mar 2020

3.5%

3.1%

Apr 2020 

12.1%

15.4%

May 2020

10.2%

13.6%

June 2020 

8.8%

10.6%

July 2020

7.9%

9.6%

Aug 2020

7.2%

8%

Sep 2020

6.2%

7.2%

Oct 2020

5.2%

5.8%

Nov 2020

5.9%

5.8%

Dec 2020

5.9%

6.1%

Both groups have seen employment rebound since the summer, though the bounceback has been more pronounced for older women. Of course, they fell further than their male counterparts and so had more ground to make up. Over the three-month height of unemployment, April to June, women 55 and older had an average jobless rate of just over 13 percent, while it was only about 10 percent for men. From then until December, joblessness for women in the age group fell by about seven percentage points, compared to less than five for men.

Unemployment rate changes, 55+ men vs. women

Group

% Dec 2019-Dec 2020

% Dec. 2019-April 2020

PP April-June 2020 Average-Dec 2020

Men 55+

156.5%

426.1%

-4.5

Women 55+

134.6%

492.3%

-7.1

Ready for a Rebound?

Unemployment has made a steady decline since the peak in the summer of 2020, both for older workers and their younger counterparts, but joblessness remains high across all types of occupations. As older workers continue to set the pace for the American workforce, it’s clear some fields have fared better than others. What does that mean for seniors in the workforce?

Those 55 and up represent 23.6 percent of American workers, but they have much higher rates of representation in certain industries. Overall, the outlook for senior workers is mixed. They account for about one-third of people in legal occupations, a field where the unemployment rate has grown the fastest (+283 percent). On the other hand, food prep and service workers, of which seniors make up only about 13 percent, have also seen lagging bounceback from the summer crisis and the jobless rate stands at 242 percent higher than it was this time last year.

Occupational groups by percentage of workers 55 and older and jobless rate increase

Occupational group

Percentage of workers 55+

Unemployment rate increase, Dec 2019-Dec 2020

All occupations

23.6%

91.2%

Legal occupations

31.7%

283.3%

Management occupations

29.9%

88.2%

Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations

27.6%

90.9%

Community and social service occupations

26.7%

44.4%

Transportation and material moving occupations

25.4%

109.5%

Architecture and engineering occupations

25.3%

136.4%

Office and administrative support occupations

25.2%

110.3%

Production occupations

24.6%

48.8%

Business and financial operations occupations

24.1%

83.3%

Sales and related occupations

24.0%

60.6%

Personal care and service occupations

23.5%

245.7%

Education, training, and library occupations

23.0%

76.2%

Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations

22.9%

180.0%

Healthcare practitioners and technical occupations

22.3%

100.0%

Life, physical, and social science occupations

22.2%

100.0%

Farming, fishing, and forestry occupations

21.7%

48.0%

Arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations

21.6%

239.1%

Healthcare support occupations

20.2%

78.9%

Construction and extraction occupations

19.0%

85.7%

Protective service occupations

18.4%

58.3%

Computer and mathematical occupations

16.3%

30.4%

Food preparation and serving related occupations

12.8%

242.0%

Conclusion

By the end of 2020, about 35 million adults 55 and older were employed, and while the situation is beginning to look up, older workers (and everyone else) have a long way to go before we can consider the economy recovered from the pandemic’s effects.