The Older Workers and Retirement Chartbook Chapter 1. Older workers

What economic challenges do older workers face?

America’s workforce is aging. During the economic recovery that followed the Great Recession of 2008–2009, four in 10 Americans age 55 or older were in the labor force, the highest participation rate in half a century. These older workers made up 23.6% of the overall labor force in 2020, the highest share on record (authors’ analysis of BLS 1948–2021). Though the COVID-19 pandemic had a disproportionate impact on older workers, causing their share of the workforce to dip slightly in 2021 (to 23.4%), the dip is likely to prove only a temporary interruption of a longer-term trend reflecting the aging of the large baby boomer cohort, slower population growth, longer life expectancies, and later retirement (Toossi and Torpey 2017; Huston 2019).

The Older Workers and Retirement Chartbook

A joint project of EPI and the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis

Some Americans are happy to keep working at older ages for financial and social reasons, but others work reluctantly in low-paying, physically taxing jobs that do not offer a path to retirement (Ghilarducci et al. 2021; Gatta and Horning 2022; Bruder 2017). The policy choices that shaped their working lives weakened workers’ bargaining power, eroded the real value of the minimum wage and other labor standards, allowed employers to shift more responsibility for health care and retirement onto workers, and failed to protect workers from wage theft, employee misclassification, health and safety violations, and other abuses (Bivens et al. 2014; Cooper and Kroeger 2017; EPI 2018).

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While anti-worker policies and adverse labor market conditions also harm younger workers, older workers face special challenges linked to age discrimination, obsolete or employer-specific skills, poor health, and other barriers to obtaining and keeping good jobs. Older workers who lose their jobs suffer greater earnings losses than their younger counterparts. Their options for reentering the workplace are often constrained by health limitations and caregiving responsibilities; by family, housing, and community ties to areas with aging populations and declining industries; by employers leery of offering lower-paying jobs to “overqualified” workers with nontransferable skills; and by other barriers to reemployment (Berkman and Truesdale 2022; Farmand and Ghilarducci 2019).

For these reasons, older workers are disproportionately represented among the long-term unemployed and among “discouraged” workers who are not prepared for retirement but have given up looking for work (Johnson and Butrica 2012; Johnson and Gosselin 2018; Weller 2020; Townsend Kiernan and Miller 2021; Maestas and Li 2006). Displaced older workers who do find work often do so only after enduring long searches and accepting significant pay cuts (Farber 2017; Koenig, Trawinski, and Rix 2015).

The same factors that affect older workers’ reemployment prospects if they lose their jobs also affect their ability to negotiate better pay and working conditions at their current jobs. These and other factors may be driving down older workers’ wages relative to those of prime-age workers, though patterns differ by gender and educational attainment. One factor that has weakened older workers’ bargaining power is declining retirement security, which, combined with poor external job prospects, leaves many workers stuck in bad jobs (Farmand and Ghilarducci 2019).

More research is needed on how age interacts with gender, race, ethnicity, educational attainment, and other factors that have been shown to influence workers’ bargaining power (Naidu and Carr 2022; Farmand and Ghilarducci 2022). It is likely that older age exacerbates the labor market disadvantages faced by Blacks, Hispanics, and women, though age may have a less negative effect among more privileged groups. Bahn (2020), for example, lists reasons why older women may have weak bargaining power, including age discrimination, having caregiving responsibilities, being secondary earners whose mobility is constrained by a spouse’s job, and being employed in such occupations as nursing and teaching where large employers often face little competition in hiring.

What do the charts tell us?

Despite challenges, more Americans age 65 and older are working or actively looking for work than before 2000 . Older men have higher labor force participation rates than older women, but the gender gap has narrowed, especially in the 55–64 age group (Chart 1A). Among older workers, labor force participation rates are highest for Hispanic and Asian American men (Chart 1B).

Though there has been a societal shift toward sedentary occupations, many older workers—and especially those without college degrees—work in physically demanding jobs (Chart 1C). Black and Hispanic older workers are more likely to have such jobs than their white non-Hispanic counterparts (Chart 1D).

The share of workers ages 55–64 represented by a union has declined, weakening older workers’ bargaining power and eroding workplace protections (Chart 1E). Union members are more likely to have good pensions, job security, and other advantages that reduce the likelihood of leaving the workforce sooner than planned (Chart 1F). But since most workers do not have these protections, unplanned retirement because of poor health, job loss, or deteriorating working conditions is common among both men and women, especially among workers without college degrees who retire before age 65 (Charts 1G and 1H). Black and Hispanic workers are more likely to retire involuntarily—including a majority of Black workers who retire at age 65 or older but had hoped to work longer (Chart 1I).

Tight labor markets, like union representation, increase workers’ ability to negotiate better pay and working conditions. Older workers’ job market insecurity peaked during the Great Recession of 2008–2009, but these workers regained some confidence as the economy recovered (Chart 1J). Older women are more pessimistic about their job prospects than older men (Chart 1K), with discrimination against older women job applicants a likely factor (Lahey 2008; Neumark, Burn, and Button 2019).

What can we do to alleviate challenges faced by older workers?

Older workers can be helped by policies that level the playing field with younger workers. A growing body of research finds that many employers discriminate against older applicants (e.g. Lahey 2008; Farber et al. 2019; Neumark et al. 2019a, 2019b). Policymakers should strengthen protections for older workers, who, under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), face a stricter burden of proof than plaintiffs in other employment discrimination cases (Harrison 2021; Olen 2019; McLaughlin 2019). The ADEA is further weakened by the growing practice of employers requiring workers to agree to arbitration to resolve disputes rather than allowing them to pursue claims in court (Colvin 2018; Harris 2020). In addition to tightening legislative language and ending forced arbitration, regulators should identify and prevent discriminatory practices, such as writing job descriptions with ageist language (Burn et al. 2022). An Older Workers Bureau at the Department of Labor could help identify problem areas, support research, and work with employers and other stakeholders to make the workforce a more welcoming place for older workers (Ghilarducci 2021; Risher 2022).

Employers who stereotype older workers are hindered in hiring the best person for the job, to the detriment of both employers and workers. But discrimination might be rationalized as a way for employers to avoid the higher health care or other costs associated with employing older workers. Expanding Medicare eligibility to more older workers—or to everyone—and making it the primary payer would be one way to make sure health care costs are not a disincentive to employing older workers (Clark and Shoven 2019).

Another targeted policy that would help older workers is expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Few older workers are helped by the EITC, which focuses on working parents and provides only small benefits to workers between the ages of 25 and 64 who are not custodial parents (Schvedov and Schramm 2020). The American Rescue Plan of 2021 temporarily expanded EITC eligibility and benefits to low-income workers over the age of 18 without dependent children at home, but Congress let these provisions expire (Dolby 2021; Rahman-Davies 2022). Permanently increasing benefits and expanding eligibility to all low-wage workers would boost labor force participation and help struggling Americans at both ends of the age spectrum.

Older workers also face barriers to accessing career counseling and job training programs. With a few exceptions, such as the Senior Community Service Employment Program (NCOA 2022) and the New Start Career Network (Heidkamp et al. 2022), these programs often focus on younger workers because unemployed older workers are more likely to find part-time or lower-paid jobs or to want the flexibility of self-employment, which affects how the programs are evaluated (Abraham and Houseman 2020). Adding staff, programs, and performance metrics better suited to older workers’ needs could help fill the lacuna in job training programs and counseling oriented toward older workers.

While leveling the playing field is important, targeted policies can have limited impacts while policies that improve working conditions for all workers can have the greatest impact on more vulnerable workers, including older workers. A priority is pursuing full-employment fiscal and monetary policies, since tight labor markets make employers work harder to recruit, hire, and retain older workers and other workers who are often discriminated against or overlooked. Older workers’ gains in the strong pre-COVID-19 economy were halted by the pandemic, though their plight would have been much worse had policymakers not responded swiftly to replace lost income and boost the economy (CBPP 2022).

Expanding the economic pie through broad-based policies from which all workers benefit is important, but so is ensuring that workers fully share in it. Central to achieving this goal is protecting workers’ right to collectively bargain for better wages, working conditions, and job protections. Because unions and union members prioritize retirement benefits in bargaining, 85% of union members participate in a retirement plan, including 68% who participate in secure defined benefit pensions. In contrast, only 51% of nonunion workers participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan of any kind and only 13% participate in a defined benefit pension (BLS 2022). Access to secure retirement benefits gives older workers the freedom to walk away from bad jobs, reinforcing their bargaining power (Farmand and Ghilarducci 2019).

Beyond the direct effects of union representation on members’ well-being, unions have important spillover effects, raising pay and labor standards for nonunion workers and supporting pro-worker policies (Bivens et al. 2017; Feigenbaum, Hertel-Fernandez, and Williamson 2019). By amplifying worker voices, unions also have positive impacts on the broader society. For example, the presence of unionized nurses was associated with a lower number of nursing home deaths in New York State during the COVID-19 pandemic (Dean et al. 2022).

Union-backed policies that benefit workers of all ages include paid leave, expanded caregiving assistance, flexible and fair scheduling, improved health and safety protections, and unemployment insurance reform (e.g., AFL-CIO 2021a, 2021b, 2021c; Olen 2021; Quinnell 2014). These policies especially help older workers, who are more likely than younger cohorts to have health conditions that require extended leave (Smalligan 2020), to be caring for frail adult family members (AARP 2020; Butrica and Karamcheva 2018), to face elevated health and safety risks (Smith and Pegula 2020; CDC 2022; Shah Goda and Soltas 2022), or to experience long-term unemployment (Johnson and Butrica 2012; Townsend Kiernan and Miller 2021).

Some policies would not disproportionately help older workers but would have a significant positive effect on the most vulnerable. A long-overdue increase in the minimum wage would help more workers age 55 and older (4.7 million) than teens (3.3 million). If workers earning close to the minimum who would also get a raise are included in the calculations, 14.6% of older workers would be helped by increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 in 2025 (Cooper, Mokhiber, and Zipperer 2019).

A key issue for older workers is control over when and how much they work. Though older workers have somewhat more predictable schedules than younger workers, the erratic schedules common in the service sector are associated with psychological distress, poor sleep, work-family conflict, and economic insecurity among older workers (Abrams, Harknett, and Schneider 2022). In response to a 2015 survey, 37.7% of workers age 50 and older cited the right number of hours as an essential or very important attribute that their job lacked, with 25.4% of respondents currently working more hours and 12.3% working fewer hours than desired. This hours mismatch was the most common source of dissatisfaction reported, ranking above concerns about pay, benefits, and other job attributes (Maestas et al. 2015).

A desire for fewer hours leads many older workers to take part-time jobs that do not offer retirement and other benefits. The SECURE Act of 2019 took a small step in the right direction by requiring some employers to extend eligibility for 401(k) plans to some long-term part-time workers (Barney 2020). However, much more could be done to improve the pay and benefits of part-time workers (Golden 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many of the challenges facing older workers. Temporary measures enacted during the pandemic alleviated some of these challenges and contributed to a rapid economic recovery. But many problems remained unaddressed, including critical health and safety issues. Even as the virus spread rapidly among workers in nursing homes, meatpacking plants, and other workplaces, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration failed to implement an infectious disease standard (Michaels and Wagner 2020; Schwing 2020). Emergency paid leave provisions for workers needing time off for COVID-19 reasons have expired, leaving many low-income workers with a hard choice between staying home without pay, sometimes at the risk of losing their jobs, or working sick or leaving sick family members home alone, thus contributing to the spread of the disease (Romig 2022).

One of the most effective temporary measures implemented during the pandemic was expanding eligibility for, increasing the amount of, and extending the duration of unemployment insurance benefits. Before the pandemic expansion, only three in 10 unemployed workers received benefits (Bivens et al. 2021; Dube 2021). Older workers figure prominently among underemployed workers, the long-term unemployed, and discouraged workers who fall through cracks in the system. Extending unemployment insurance benefits not only helps long-term unemployed workers make ends meet, it also enables them to find better jobs and work that matches their skills, leading to higher earnings and longer-lasting employment (Farooq, Kugler, and Muratori 2022).

Another potentially useful pandemic reform was federal support for states offering short-time compensation. These programs, also known as “work-sharing” programs, compensate workers for reduced hours rather than requiring employers to lay off workers before they become eligible for benefits. Though many employers in the United States are not familiar with this option, which remains available in some states, it is popular in some countries and may be especially useful to older workers, who suffer worse consequences than younger workers when employment ties are severed (NELP 2020; NELP and CLASP 2016). Work-sharing may also accustom employers and workers to a shorter workweek, an additional benefit for older workers (Baker 2018).

These and other emergency measures taken during the pandemic show what is possible, but more lasting solutions are called for, including permanent unemployment insurance reform, EITC expansion, and paid leave policies.


Labor force participation among older Americans is steady or increasing: Labor force participation rate of older Americans, by gender and age, 1982–2022

1A
Men ages 55–64 Women ages 55–64 Men age 65+ Women age 65+
1982 70.2% 41.8% 17.8% 7.9%
1983 69.4% 41.5% 17.5% 7.9%
1984 68.5% 41.7% 16.4% 7.6%
1985 68.0% 42.0% 15.8% 7.3%
1986 67.3% 42.3% 16.0% 7.4%
1987 67.6% 42.6% 16.3% 7.4%
1988 67.0% 43.4% 16.5% 7.9%
1989 67.2% 45.1% 16.7% 8.4%
1990 67.7% 45.2% 16.4% 8.6%
1991 66.9% 45.4% 15.7% 8.6%
1992 67.0% 46.6% 16.1% 8.3%
1993 66.7% 47.3% 15.6% 8.1%
1994 65.7% 48.9% 16.7% 9.1%
1995 66.0% 49.3% 16.7% 8.8%
1996 67.0% 49.6% 16.7% 8.5%
1997 67.7% 50.9% 17.0% 8.6%
1998 68.1% 51.1% 16.4% 8.6%
1999 68.0% 51.6% 16.9% 8.8%
2000 67.2% 51.6% 17.7% 9.4%
2001 68.0% 53.2% 17.8% 9.5%
2002 69.1% 55.1% 18.0% 9.9%
2003 68.7% 56.8% 18.5% 10.6%
2004 68.9% 56.5% 18.8% 11.1%
2005 69.3% 57.0% 19.7% 11.5%
2006 69.6% 58.3% 20.4% 11.6%
2007 69.6% 58.2% 20.5% 12.7%
2008 70.4% 59.1% 21.4% 13.2%
2009 70.2% 59.9% 21.9% 13.7%
2010 70.1% 60.4% 22.1% 13.8%
2011 69.3% 59.8% 22.8% 14.0%
2012 70.0% 59.4% 23.5% 14.5%
2013 70.0% 59.2% 23.5% 14.9%
2014 69.8% 58.8% 22.9% 15.1%
2015 70.0% 58.5% 23.3% 15.3%
2016 70.2% 58.4% 23.9% 15.6%
2017 70.7% 59.0% 23.9% 15.6%
2018 71.4% 59.3% 23.9% 16.0%
2019 71.6% 59.7% 24.6% 16.4%
2020 70.8% 58.9% 23.9% 15.9%
2021 70.4% 59.1% 23.2% 15.3%
2022 70.8% 60.1% 23.7% 15.2%
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Notes: Labor force participants are employed workers and unemployed workers who are actively seeking work. The labor force participation rate for a given age group is the number of labor force participants divided by the total number of people in that age group.

Labor force participants are employed workers and unemployed workers who are actively seeking work. The labor force participation rate for a given age group is the number of labor force participants divided by the total number of people in that age group. The measure does not include discouraged workers who would like to work but are not actively looking due to weak job opportunities.

Source: Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) analysis of microdata from the Current Population Survey (CPS) 1976–2022 Outgoing Rotation Group, extracted from CPS-IPUMS (Flood et al. 2021).

The labor force participation (LFP) rate of 55- to 64-year-olds—the share of the population that is either working or looking for work—has leveled off over the last decade and a half. In the preceding decades, it climbed steadily for women while falling slightly for men. Meanwhile, the LFP of both men and women age 65 and older has trended upward over the last 30 years. These trends of steady or increasing labor force participation among older workers contrast with a long-term decline in the LFP of prime-age workers (those ages 25–54), not shown in the chart. Researchers have attributed that decline to a lack of support for working women with caregiving responsibilities and declining job opportunities for men without college degrees, among other factors (see, for example, Hipple 2016; Krueger 2017; Richter, Chapman, and Mihaylov 2018).

The increase in labor force participation among Americans age 65 and older likely reflects both positive and negative factors: improved health and job opportunities for highly educated seniors alongside declining retirement security for less educated workers. Meanwhile, the stagnant LFP among Americans ages 55–64 is the result of offsetting trends. On one hand, fewer 55-year-olds are still working as a result of the decline in prime-age LFP. On the other hand, those who are still working at age 55 are retiring later, causing a shallower decline in LFP for workers in the 55–64 age range.

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Hispanic and Asian American men have the highest labor force participation among older Americans: Labor force participation rate of older Americans, by race and ethnicity, gender, and age, 2022

1B
White Black Hispanic AAPI
Men 71.2% 60.6% 77.2% 73.3%
Women 61.4% 58.1% 56.9% 60.5%
Men 23.7% 21.7% 27.4% 21.5%
Women 15.2% 16.2% 12.5% 17.2%
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Notes: Labor force participants are employed workers and unemployed workers who are actively seeking work. The labor force participation rate for a given age group is the number of labor force participants divided by the total number of people in that age group. Hispanic refers to Hispanic of any race, while white, Black, and AAPI refer to non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic Blacks, and non-Hispanic Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Data cover the first half of 2022.

Labor force participants are employed workers and unemployed workers who are actively seeking work. The labor force participation rate for a given age group is the number of labor force participants divided by the total number of people in that age group. Hispanic refers to Hispanic of any race, while white, Black, and AAPI refer to non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic Blacks, and non-Hispanic Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Data cover the first half of 2022. The measure does not include discouraged workers who would like to work but are not actively looking due to weak job opportunities.

Source: Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) analysis of monthly microdata from the Current Population Survey (CPS) Outgoing Rotation Group for January–July 2022 (Flood et al. 2021).

Hispanic and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) men have the highest labor force participation rates among Americans ages 55–64, followed by white men. Hispanic men are also more likely than men in any other racial or ethnic group to continue working (or looking for work) past age 65. Across both groups of older men, Black men have the lowest labor force participation rates, and research suggests that poor health is a key reason why older Black men exit the labor force (Quinby and Wettstein 2021).

Racial and ethnic differences in labor force participation among older women ages 55–64 are less noticeable than among older men in this age group. However, Hispanic women are less likely than other women to be working at older ages.

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Many older workers have physically demanding jobs: Share of older workers in physically demanding jobs, by educational attainment and age, 2018

1C
Share of workers in physically demanding jobs 
All educations 31.6%
No college degree 41.1%
Bachelor’s degree or more 15.0%
All educations 24.1%
No college degree 32.3%
Bachelor’s degree or more 14.5%

 

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Notes: Workers are in a physically demanding job if they answered that their job requires “lots of physical effort” “all” or “most” of the time.

Workers are in a physically demanding job if they answered that their job requires “lots of physical effort” “all” or “most” of the time. The sample includes full- and part-time workers ages 55 and older participating in the RAND Health and Retirement Study (HRS) survey.

Source: Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) analysis of Health and Retirement Study data (RAND 2022; University of Michigan 2022).

There is a common assumption that jobs are becoming less physically demanding, enabling workers to continue working at older ages. However, progress in recent decades has been slow and uneven. According to research not shown in the chart, despite a shift from moderately physical jobs to sedentary but cognitively demanding ones, there has been a slower decline in the share of older workers with jobs requiring intense or sustained physical effort (Johnson 2004; Johnson, Mermin, and Resseger 2007; Ghilarducci et al. 2016).

As shown in the chart, 3 in 10 (31.6%) workers ages 55–64, and 4 in 10 (41.1%) non-college-educated workers in this age group, reported working in jobs that required “lots of physical effort” most or all of the time. While the share of non-college-educated workers with physically demanding jobs is lower at age 65 and older, it remains surprisingly high (32.3%).

Other research echoes these findings. Researchers at the Center for Economic Policy Research, for example, found that 34.8% of workers 58 and older had physically demanding jobs in 2009 (Rho 2010), a share that was essentially unchanged (34.5%) five years later (Bucknor and Baker 2016). Similarly, a RAND survey found that 37.5% of workers age 50 and older regularly moved heavy loads or people, 36.8% often worked in tiring or painful positions, and 29.3% had jobs that involved standing all or almost all of the time, with a majority of older workers (58.0%) exposed to at least one of these difficult working conditions (Maestas et al. 2017).

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Older Black and Hispanic workers are much more likely than older white workers to have physically demanding jobs: Share of older workers in physically demanding jobs, by race and ethnicity, gender, and age, 2018

1D
Share of workers in physically demanding jobs  White Black Hispanic
Men 29.5% 48.2% 47.1%
Women 25.6% 41.4% 43.1%
Men 15.9% 43.1% 37.2%
Women 26.2% 33.1% 43.8%
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Notes: Workers are in a physically demanding job if they answered that their job requires “lots of physical effort” “all” or “most” of the time. Hispanic refers to Hispanic of any race, while white and Black refer to non-Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic Blacks.

Workers are in a physically demanding job if they answered that their job requires “lots of physical effort” “all” or “most” of the time. Hispanic refers to Hispanic of any race, while white and Black refer to non-Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic Blacks. The sample includes full- and part-time workers ages 55 and older participating in the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) survey.

Source: Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) analysis of Health and Retirement Study data (RAND 2022; University of Michigan 2022).

Older workers perform more physically taxing work than might be expected, and older Black and Hispanic workers are much more likely than white workers to have physically demanding jobs. The share of Black and Hispanic workers with jobs that require “lots of physical effort” all or most of the time is above 40% for those ages 55–64 and remains high (above 30%) for those age 65 and older.

Though there has been a shift over time toward less physically demanding work, this shift has been concentrated among white workers (Ghilarducci et al. 2016; not shown in the chart). Between 1992 and 2014 the share of white workers ages 55–62 with jobs described as requiring “lots of physical effort” decreased 7 percentage points. But during that period there was just a 1 percentage-point decline in the share of Black workers in that age group with such jobs.

The distribution of physically taxing jobs is mixed when it comes to gender. Men ages 55–64 are more likely to have physically demanding jobs than women ages 55–64, but among workers 65 and older, white and Hispanic men are less likely than white and Hispanic women to have physically demanding jobs. This does not contradict other research finding that older men generally have more physically demanding jobs because workers 65 and older are a relatively small share of the older workforce (Maestas et al. 2017; Rho 2010).

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Union representation has declined among workers approaching retirement: Share of workers represented by a union, by age, 1983–2021

1E
Year Ages 25–54 Ages 55–64 Age 65+
1983 26.4% 29.6% 11.5%
1984 24.9% 27.8% 11.3%
1985 23.4% 27.5% 10.5%
1986 22.4% 26.4% 10.4%
1987 21.8% 25.3% 11.0%
1988 21.5% 25.7% 10.4%
1989 20.9% 24.4% 10.7%
1990 20.4% 24.2% 10.3%
1991 20.2% 23.3% 9.8%
1992 19.9% 22.8% 10.3%
1993 19.7% 22.8% 9.8%
1994 19.5% 22.8% 10.3%
1995 18.6% 21.5% 9.4%
1996 18.1% 20.8% 8.4%
1997 17.4% 20.7% 8.2%
1998 17.1% 20.2% 8.3%
1999 17.0% 19.4% 9.1%
2000 16.5% 19.6% 9.7%
2001 16.4% 18.7% 9.0%
2002 16.0% 19.0% 9.0%
2003 15.6% 18.7% 8.8%
2004 15.2% 18.4% 9.0%
2005 14.9% 18.0% 10.1%
2006 14.3% 17.6% 9.5%
2007 14.3% 17.7% 9.6%
2008 14.7% 18.4% 10.2%
2009 14.4% 18.1% 10.7%
2010 14.0% 17.2% 10.4%
2011 13.8% 17.2% 11.4%
2012 13.2% 16.5% 10.3%
2013 13.3% 15.8% 10.5%
2014 13.1% 15.5% 11.0%
2015 13.0% 15.7% 10.9%
2016 12.7% 14.8% 10.7%
2017 12.7% 14.9% 10.5%
2018 12.4% 14.7% 10.5%
2019 12.3% 14.0% 10.9%
2020 12.9% 14.6% 10.1%
2021 12.5% 13.6% 9.9%
2022 11.9% 13.4% 10.8%

 

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Notes: Workers are represented by a union if they are union members or if they are not members but report that they are covered by a union contract.

Workers are represented by a union if they are union members or if they are not members but report that they are covered by a union contract. The sample includes wage and salary workers.

Source: Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) analysis of Current Population Survey (CPS) Outgoing Rotation Group microdata, January 1983–June 2022 (Flood et al. 2021).

Union representation has generally declined as labor laws and institutions—notably the weak penalties imposed on employers engaged in unfair labor practices—increasingly serve to help private-sector employers block organizing efforts (Mishel, Rhinehart, and Windham 2020). As the chart shows, this is true for workers ages 55–64 as well as prime-age workers ages 25–54.

An exception is workers 65 and older, who are less likely to be represented by a union than younger workers but have not seen a decline in representation. These workers are more likely to work in part-time and other noncareer jobs not covered by union contracts, according to EPI and SCEPA analysis of Health and Retirement Survey data (RAND 2022; University of Michigan 2022; see also Johnson, Kawachi, and Lewis 2009). Their low but stable union representation may be because union workers are retiring at older ages because of a shift away from physically demanding manufacturing jobs (Bivens et al. 2017) and because many pension plans for unionized public-sector workers have raised their normal retirement ages (Brainard and Brown 2018).

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Many older workers leave the workforce sooner than planned, but union workers are less likely to experience involuntary retirement: Share of retired older workers who retired involuntarily, by union representation and age (2014–2018 pooled data)

1F
Involuntary retirement rate
All workers 53.6%
Not unionized 58.6%
Unionized 36.7%
All workers 45.1%
Not unionized 46.2%
Unionized 35.2%

 

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Notes: The sample includes individuals who reported being retired in the current survey but working as employees in the previous one. Involuntary retirement is defined as retirement preceded by poor health or disability (including poor mental health or stress); by a layoff, business closure, or ownership change; or by changes in working conditions or compensation.

The sample includes individuals who reported being retired in the current survey but working as employees in the previous one. Involuntary retirement is defined as retirement preceded by poor health or disability (including poor mental health or stress); by a layoff, business closure, or ownership change; or by changes in working conditions or compensation. The share of workers who retired involuntarily would be higher if it included workers who retired for caregiving reasons, but the survey questions do not differentiate between workers who retired when faced with caregiving responsibilities and those retirees who simply wanted to spend more time with family. Workers are represented by a union if they are union members or if they are not members but report that they are covered by a union contract. Self-employed workers are assumed to not be unionized.

Source: Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) analysis of Health and Retirement Study data (RAND 2022; University of Michigan 2022).

Many workers who retire in their 50s or early 60s do so after experiencing poor health, job loss, deteriorating working conditions, or reduced earnings. Among retired workers ages 55–64, slightly more than half (53.6%) retired involuntarily. The share is lower among retirees age 65 and older (45.1%), simply because more workers in this age group are ready to retire and thus do so voluntarily. The high share of involuntary retirements before age 65 shows that the plan to work to age 65 or older—voiced by roughly half of workers (Munnell, Rutledge, and Sanzenbacher 2019)—is often unrealistic. Other research has confirmed high rates of involuntary retirement and suggests that involuntary retirement may be increasing (Munnell, Rutledge, and Sanzenbacher 2019; Johnson and Gosselin 2018).

The chart also shows that union members are less likely to be forced to retire. This is likely because unions offer better protections against arbitrary termination and union jobs offer better health and leave benefits. Differences in the composition of the unionized and nonunionized workforce may also play a role, as public-sector workers, who are more likely to have college degrees and white-collar jobs, are also more likely to belong to unions (Gould 2020; Bivens et al. 2017). Finally, workers represented by a union are more likely than nonunion workers to have access to a retirement plan at work and are better prepared for retirement, according to analysis of 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances data (Federal Reserve 2022). This gives union workers more control over how long to work and when to retire.

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Older workers without a college degree are more likely to be forced into retirement: Share of retired older workers who retired involuntarily, by educational attainment and age (2014–2018 pooled data)

1G
Involuntary retirement rate
No college degree 58.6%
Bachelor’s degree or more 43.2%
No college degree 47.5%
Bachelor’s degree or more 41.0%

 

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Notes: The sample includes individuals who reported being retired in the current survey but working as employees in the previous one. Involuntary retirement is defined as retirement preceded by poor health or disability (including poor mental health or stress); by a layoff, business closure, or ownership change; or by changes in working conditions or compensation.

The sample includes individuals who reported being retired in the current survey but working as employees in the previous one. Involuntary retirement is defined as retirement preceded by poor health or disability (including poor mental health or stress); by a layoff, business closure, or ownership change; or by changes in working conditions or compensation. The share of workers who retired involuntarily would be higher if it included workers who retired for caregiving reasons, but the survey questions do not differentiate between workers who retired when faced with caregiving responsibilities and those retirees who simply wanted to spend more time with family. Workers are represented by a union if they are union members or if they are not members but report that they are covered by a union contract. Self-employed workers are assumed to not be unionized.

Source: Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) analysis of Health and Retirement Study data (RAND 2022; University of Michigan 2022).

The commonly expressed desire to work until age 65 or older is unrealistic for many older workers, particularly those without a college degree. Over half (58.6%) of non-college-educated retirees ages 55–64, and nearly half (47.5%) of their 65-and-older counterparts, had experienced poor health, job loss, deteriorating working conditions, or reduced earnings at their last job. These non-college-educated workers are more likely than college-educated workers to be in poor health, which is the biggest cause of involuntary retirement (Munnell, Rutledge, and Sanzenbacher 2019; Rutledge 2018).

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Older men and women both face high rates of involuntary retirement: Share of retired older workers who retired involuntarily, by gender and age (2014–2018 pooled data)

1H
Involuntary retirement rate
Men 54.7%
Women 52.7%
Men 46.2%
Women 44.0%

 

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Notes: The sample includes individuals who reported being retired in the current survey but working as employees in the previous one. Involuntary retirement is defined as retirement preceded by poor health or disability (including poor mental health or stress); by a layoff, business closure, or ownership change; or by changes in working conditions or compensation.

The sample includes individuals who reported being retired in the current survey but working as employees in the previous one. Involuntary retirement is defined as retirement preceded by poor health or disability (including poor mental health or stress); by a layoff, business closure, or ownership change; or by changes in working conditions or compensation. The share of workers who retired involuntarily would be higher if it included workers who retired for caregiving reasons, but the survey questions do not differentiate between workers who retired when faced with caregiving responsibilities and those retirees who simply wanted to spend more time with family.

Source: Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) analysis of Health and Retirement Study data (RAND 2022; University of Michigan 2022).

Just over half (52.7%) of 55- to 64-year-old women who retired did so after experiencing poor health, job loss, deteriorating working conditions, or reduced earnings at their last job. The share of men in this age group experiencing involuntary retirement is even higher (54.7%). The difference could be because men are more likely to have physically demanding jobs that are challenging for workers in poor health (Maestas et al. 2017) or simply because many women voluntarily retire before age 65 to retire around the same time as older husbands (Maestas 2018). Workers who retire at older ages are more likely than their younger counterparts to do so voluntarily. Nevertheless, 46.2% of retired men and 44.0% of retired women age 65 and older retired after it became more difficult or impossible to continue working.

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Most older Hispanic and Black workers who retire before age 65 do so involuntarily: Share of retired older workers who retired involuntarily, by race, ethnicity, and age (2014–2018 pooled data)

1I
Involuntary retirement rate
White 51.6%
Black 60.8%
Hispanic 60.2%
White 44.8%
Black 52.5%
Hispanic 39.0%
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Notes: The sample includes individuals who reported being retired in the current survey but working in the previous one. Involuntary retirement is defined as retirement preceded by poor health or disability (including poor mental health or stress); by a layoff, business closure, or ownership change; or by changes in working conditions or compensation. Hispanic refers to Hispanic of any race while white and Black refer to non-Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic Blacks.

Source: Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) analysis of Health and Retirement Study data (RAND 2022; University of Michigan 2022).

Six out of 10 Hispanic and Black 55- to 64-year-olds who retired had experienced poor health, job loss, deteriorating working conditions, or reduced earnings at their last job. In contrast, just over half (51.6%) of white workers who retired before age 65 did so involuntarily. White workers are more likely than their Hispanic and Black peers to retire voluntarily because they have the means to forgo job earnings and have access to affordable health insurance before attaining Medicare eligibility at age 65 (Copeland and Greenwald 2021).

Financial pressures hindering voluntary retirement reported by more Black and Hispanic workers include not just low income and wealth, but also the need to pay off debt, provide economic support to friends and family, and pay for a child’s education. These pressures lead to wider gaps between when Black and Hispanic workers expect to retire and the actual experience of Black and Hispanic retirees (relative to white retirees’ expectations and experiences of retirement).

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Tighter labor markets decrease older workers’ job insecurity and thus strengthen their bargaining power: Workers’ average self-assessed probability of not getting rehired at the same level if they lost their job, by age, 2002–2018

1J
Year Ages 55–64 Age 65+
2002 53.8% 60.3%
2004 55.0% 61.3%
2006 53.7% 62.7%
2010 64.4% 72.3%
2012 59.3% 67.8%
2014 55.1% 63.3%
2016 49.9% 59.2%
2018 45.7% 57.2%
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Notes: Probabilities are based on workers’ responses to a questionnaire that asks, “Suppose you were to lose your job this month. What do you think are the chances that you could find an equally good job in the same line of work within the next few months?” The sample includes employees who reported working full- or part-time and excludes self-employed and partially retired workers.

Probabilities are based on workers’ responses to a questionnaire that asks, “Suppose you were to lose your job this month. What do you think are the chances that you could find an equally good job in the same line of work within the next few months?” The sample includes employees who reported working full- or part-time and excludes self-employed and partially retired workers. The chart shows the average response subtracted from 100%, since the original answers to the question measured workers’ confidence, not their insecurity.

Source: Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) analysis of Health and Retirement Study data (RAND 2022; University of Michigan 2022).

High shares of older workers are pessimistic about their work options should they lose their job. Research shows that older workers are more likely than younger workers (not shown in the chart) to think they cannot find a job comparable to their current one—a well-founded fear that exists at every earnings level and reflects the reality of an unfriendly labor market for older job seekers (RELAB 2020). The chart shows that this belief is especially prevalent among workers age 65 and older, though a tight labor market gives these workers more confidence about their job prospects.

As the chart shows, when the economy in 2010 was reeling from the Great Recession, nearly three-fourths (72.3%) of workers age 65 and older and nearly two-thirds (64.4%) of workers ages 55–64 said that if they lost their job they would not find a comparable one. Those shares were far lower in 2018, when the economy had fully recovered and the unemployment rate was less than half of what it was in 2010 (BLS 2022).

In addition to facing age discrimination in hiring, older workers may have more job-specific skills that are less valuable to other employers. The difficulty older workers face in finding a comparable job, which is similar for college-educated and non-college-educated workers and for white, Black, and Hispanic workers (not shown in the chart), weakens their ability to bargain for better pay and working conditions (RELAB 2020).

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Older women are more likely than older men to lack confidence in their job prospects: Workers’ average self-assessed probability of not getting rehired at the same level if they lost their job, by gender and age, 2018

1K
Probability of getting rehired
All 45.7%
Men 43.7%
Women 47.9%
All 57.2%
Men 53.9%
Women 60.8%
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Notes: Probabilities are based on workers’ responses to a questionnaire that asks, “Suppose you were to lose your job this month. What do you think are the chances that you could find an equally good job in the same line of work within the next few months?” The sample includes employees who reported working full- or part-time and excludes self-employed and partially retired workers.

Probabilities are based on workers’ responses to a questionnaire that asks, “Suppose you were to lose your job this month. What do you think are the chances that you could find an equally good job in the same line of work within the next few months?” The sample includes employees who reported working full- or part-time and excludes self-employed and partially retired workers. The chart shows the average response subtracted from 100%, since the original answers to the question measured workers’ confidence, not their insecurity.

Source: Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) analysis of Health and Retirement Study data (RAND 2022; University of Michigan 2022).

Nearly half of workers ages 55–64 and well over half of those age 65 and older think they would not be able to get a comparable job if they lost their current job. Older women have higher rates of perceived job insecurity, probably with good reason. Lahey (2008), for example, found that younger women job applicants were more than 40% more likely than older women applicants to be called for interviews for entry-level jobs. Another study, by Neumark, Burn, and Button (2019), found that potential employers discriminate against both middle-aged (ages 49–51) and older (ages 64–66) women applicants even for jobs that are not physically demanding. In contrast, middle-aged men do not face discrimination for physically demanding or not physically demanding jobs. It is only older men who face job discrimination, and only when they are applying for physically demanding jobs.

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See more work by Monique Morrissey, Siavash Radpour, and Barbara Schuster