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Employment of Older Workers - Historical Changes In Employment In Later Life

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Prior to the start of the twentieth century, most people were engaged in gainful activity throughout later life. In the absence of the economic security provided by individual wealth or a public or private pension, individuals had no choice but to continue working, or to become dependent on family members or charity (Haber and Gratton). Indeed, retirement emerged as a "social institution" only within the last hundred years (Atchley).

Over the last half of the twentieth century, labor force participation rates among older men declined, while the rates for older women increased. Between 1950 and 1990, participation among men declined; for example, nearly nine out of ten men aged fifty-five to sixty-four participated in the paid workforce in 1950, but only seven out of ten similarly aged men did so in 1990. The most dramatic decline in participation among men sixty-five and over occurred in the 1950s, with more gradual declines occurring over the next three decades. During the 1990s, small increases in employment among older men were evident. Although it is too early to tell if the increases will continue, it appears that the substantial declines in work activity among men that occurred throughout the twentieth century has leveled off. Indeed, projections generated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that slight increases in activity are expected to continue into the first part of the twenty-first century.

A different pattern of change is observed for older women. Women aged fifty-five to sixty-four doubled their work participation since the 1950s. While about one-quarter of the women in this age group worked in 1950, by the end of the twentieth century half of the women in this age group were employed. In contrast to the sizable increase in employment among women fifty-five to sixty-four, labor force activity among women sixty-five and over has changed very little since 1950 and is expected to remain at 10 percent or less into the twenty-first century.

Several factors explain the trajectories of labor force activity over time among older men and women. During the last half of the twentieth century, participation in Social Security became more widespread, and coverage by private pensions became more common. These forms of nonwork income have resulted in more individuals having investments in public and private pension systems that provide an acceptable standard of living in the absence of work. The declines in employment among younger men—those aged fifty-five to sixty-four—are often linked to the availability of disability income, which serves as an alternative income source for those too disabled to work (Burr, Massagli, Mutchler, and Pienta). Also important for this age group is the reduction of the minimum age of eligibility for receiving Social Security benefits to age sixty-two in the early 1960s.

Working women have been affected by these shifts, but their dramatic increase in labor force activity is largely a reflection of cohort replacement. The women aged fifty-five to sixty-four in 1960, for example, had accumulated little paid work experience over their lifetimes. Often working sporadically, most had married and most had spent substantial periods of time at home raising their children (Moen). In contrast, contemporary cohorts have maintained stronger commitments to paid work throughout their lifetimes. As current cohorts of young women approach later life, we may expect the work activity levels of older women to resemble those of men even more closely.

Several sets of factors account for these changing employment profiles among women. Significant changes in gender roles and improved work opportunities for women have resulted in more women being employed for larger portions of their lives. Another contributing factor has been changes in family life, including more divorce and fewer children among women currently approaching later life. Additional influences on employment levels for both men and women over the last decades of the twentieth century were exerted by shifting economic conditions and associated policies that pushed older workers out of the workforce during recessionary periods, but facilitated their employment or reemployment during times of labor force shortages.

Employment of Older Workers - Diversity In Late-life Employment Transitions [next] [back] Employment of Older Workers - Race, Gender, And Employment

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