Brett Arends’s ROI: Where are the 335,000 ‘missing’ older workers?

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The booming jobs market and great worker shortage is bringing senior citizens out of retirement to take advantage of all the great opportunities, right?

That’s the emerging CW, or conventional wisdom.

“A rising share of adults 65 and older are working,” reports MagnifyMoney, after crunching numbers provided by the U.S. Census. It adds: “In late April and early May 2020, 19.5% of Americans 65 and older were working. That figure jumped more than 2 percentage points in late April and early May 2022 to 21.9%.” New Jersey, West Virginia and Pennsylvania saw the biggest jumps in employment among the over-65s, it says. (North Dakota saw the biggest drop.)

It makes sense, too. The latest numbers show that there are 11.4 million unfilled jobs in America and fewer than 6 million unemployed. So there are, effectively, nearly 2 open jobs for each person looking for work.

Meanwhile many older workers may have good reasons to want to continue working. Many will have been pushed out by their ageist employers at a time when the employers had many more options when it came to finding new hires. Many senior citizens are also struggling to square the circle of retirement finance. How do you ensure you don’t outlive your money if you may live 30 or 40 years? The quickest answer is to keep working.

Read: ‘I needed something to do’: How working in retirement is being embraced by older adults and companies

But as ever with a popular story we need to ask questions. After the latest survey dropped I checked the numbers at the U.S. Labor Department. (They use different methods to calculate the numbers, so the exact percentages won’t agree with those from, say, the Census Bureau—but what matters is the direction.)

Bottom line? Not so fast.

Yes, the numbers of working senior citizens has risen since the depths of the pandemic, says the Labor Department. But you’d expect that: Many were laid off, or quit to avoid a disease that was mainly deadly to their demographic. But while the employment rates among senior citizens have rebounded from the height of the Covid crisis two years ago, they remain below the rates seen before the crisis hit.

So by last month 10.5 million over-65s were working in America, a jump of nearly 2 million from the April 2020 low. But the figure was in November, 2019 was nearly 300,000 higher. And there are more senior citizens today than there were then, too.

Result? Fewer than 19% of the over-65s are working today. In late 2019 that was above 20%.

And just 32% of those aged 65 to 69 are in work today. The figure in late 2019: More than 2 percentage points higher.

If the same percentage of 65-69 year olds were working today as were back then, there would be another 335,000 of them in America’s offices, stores and factories.

The good news is that employers still have plenty of opportunity to tempt older workers back, if they want to.

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