The barriers to employment among older workers remain formidable, especially due to the pandemic. But the new Biden administration has an opportunity to help.
Consider this: Even in pre-pandemic 2019, when nearly 25% of the workforce was 55 and older, roughly 2.5 million people in that age group would have liked to be working but weren’t — largely due to ageism and age discrimination.
On top of that, many older adults are minorities, women and people without college degrees, laboring in jobs with low and unstable wages. The odds of being employed in a decent paying job with good benefits in your 60s are laughably minuscule if you’re in an unstable low-wage job in your 50s .
In addition, experienced workers are more vulnerable to becoming long-term unemployed (out of work for 26 weeks or more) than younger workers.
Susan Houseman, vice president for research at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich., says 40% to 50% of Americans “can’t afford to retire and they need to work longer.”
The pandemic recession has only hiked the risks that the retirement years for older workers will be financially bleak.
“Older workers in the pandemic were first to lose their jobs and will be last to be rehired,” says Beth Truesdale, research associate, Center for Population and Development Studies at Harvard University.
But this could be an ideal time to help change the narrative about older workers.
“As the incoming administration and Congress thinks about what future economic rescue and stabilization legislation should look like, it’s worth considering incentives to keep older workers on the job or efforts to rehire them,” says Kerry Gilliam, vice president of marketing at the talent recruiting platform Jobvite.
As someone who regularly writes about older workers and unretirement, I hope Washington will strongly consider these policy prescriptions:
1. Get the nation’s 2,400 American Job Centers, run by federal and state governments, to actively embrace older workers. These employment centers are the main government resource for helping the unemployed find work, offering everything from basic job search assistance to skills training. What they don’t have are programs and expertise targeted at older workers.
“You have to make the case to employers that they are good workers,” says Houseman in an interview. “Trying to break down barriers with employers, and at the same time to help older workers.”
The job centers could also better assist older workers deciding their best option is self-employment.
Most workforce centers focus on getting people into traditional salaried positions. But older workers often end up self-employed, partly because they’re so pessimistic about employers hiring them due to their age.
The self-employment share of workers is about 13% for those in their 50s, 15% for those 60 to 64 and 21% for the 65-to-69 cohort. Credit the gig economy’s tech platforms for helping boost self-employment options.
The Job Centers could serve as a clearinghouse of information on self-employment, including offering the AARP Foundation’s tool kits for starting a business and becoming a freelancer.
“This kind of arrangement may be very appealing,” says Houseman.