Older workers seeing biggest job gains

March 11, 2012 at 10:47 AM ET

The steady improvement in the job market is good news for all Americans, but a detailed look at the data shows that older workers have been the biggest beneficiaries.

The number of people over age 55 who have a job has increased by 1.69 million over the past year, to nearly 30.2 million workers, according to data released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as part of the monthly employment report.

That’s a far larger increase than for any other age group. By contrast, the number of jobholders age 25 to 54 has increased by just 322,000 over the same period, even though that group includes more than three times as many total workers.

In total, about 2.51 million more people were employed in February vs. a year earlier, according to the household survey of Americans conducted monthly by the BLS.

The unemployment rate for workers 55 and over, at 5.9 percent, is also lower than for any other age group.

“Obviously you have a lot of older workers that want to stay in the labor force,” said Dean Baker, an economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research who noted the trend.

Baker said there are several reasons why older workers appear to be doing better.

One is demographics: As the American population ages, more people are turning 55 and being calculated as part of the cohort. That helps explain why those figures are growing.

But another element is economics. Older people who may once have considered retiring are now holding on to their jobs or seeking new jobs, either because their retirement nest egg has diminished or they need the health care benefits that come with a solid job, Baker said.

Peter Simons, 57, and his wife are among the older workers who had expected to be at least semi-retired by now but instead are still working.

Simons moved to Bend, Ore., from California in 2004 with the hope of working for a while longer and then retiring. But when the economy started to turn and the housing market in the area went downhill, he saw a sharp drop in his computer repair business. Even now, he said, business is only about half what it was in 2007.

His wife, meanwhile, was working at a lumber mill but business there started to drop. Worried about a layoff, Simons said she found another job at a local resort a couple years ago.

The couple feel fortunate that she got, and has been able to hold onto, that job. That’s partly because it comes with health insurance benefits.

“One of the big components of why we haven’t been able to consider retirement is because of what we would do for health care,” Simons said. “It’s not just a question of being able to afford the premium for health care - it’s finding anyone that would be able to give us health care because we both have pre-existing conditions.”

If they do wind up without health insurance, Simons said a last resort would be to move back to his native England. He hasn’t lived there since 1980 and would much prefer to remain in the United States, but he sees few other options if they end up unemployed before Medicare kicks in.

“The simple reality is we simply cannot retire and not have health insurance, because we could be wiped out,” he said.

Despite the lower unemployment rate, older workers do have good reason to fear a job loss: They can expect a long slog to find a new job. A separate set of government data shows that the median amount of time it takes unemployed people ages 55 to 64 to find a new job is 31.4 weeks, higher than for any other age group.

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