September 3, 2009

Recession Turns a Graying Office Grayer

I. Overview

The American work force is graying — and not just because the American population itself is graying. Older adults are staying in the labor force longer, and younger adults are staying out of it longer. Both trends took shape about two decades ago. Both have intensified during the current recession. And both are expected to continue after the economy recovers. According to one government estimate, 93% of the growth in the U.S. labor force from 2006 to 2016 will be among workers ages 55 and older.

Demographic and economic factors explain some — but not all — of these changes. Attitudes about work also play an important role — in particular, the growing desire of an aging but healthy population to stay active well into the later years of life.

A new nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project finds that a majority (54%) of workers ages 65 and older say the main reason they work is that they want to. Just 17% say the main reason is that they need the paycheck. An additional 27% say they’re motivated by a mix of desire and need.

When asked to identify specific reasons for working, older workers emphasize psychological and social factors: “to feel useful”; “to give myself something to do”; “to be with other people.” Younger and middle-aged workers are much more inclined to cite classic pocketbook considerations: “to support myself and my family”; “to live independently”; “to qualify for retirement benefits”; “to receive health care benefits.”

To be sure, the current state of the economy has influenced nearly everyone’s calculations about work to some extent. But the recession appears to be having a very different impact, depending on age — keeping older adults in the labor force and younger ones out of it.

According to the Pew Research survey, nearly four-in-ten adults who are working past the median retirement age of 62 say they have delayed their retirement because of the recession. Among workers ages 50 to 61, fully 63% say they might have to push back their expected retirement date because of current economic conditions.

All of these survey findings are consistent with a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data that show that the labor force participation rate1 of older adults, which declined from 1950 until the middle of the 1980s, has been rising ever since. This trend has accelerated during this decade, especially in the current recession.

At the other end of the age spectrum, census data show that in the current decade, a rising share of Americans ages 16 to 24 are in school and a declining share are in the labor force — 57% today versus 66% in 2000.

The Pew Research survey identifies two factors that help explain these changing patterns among the young. First, a growing share of the public says that a person needs a college education to get ahead in life; about three-quarters (73%) of the public feels this way now, up from about half (49%) in 1978. Second, younger adults (like all adults) are being hit hard by the recession, and some may have become discouraged and dropped out of the labor market.

Overall, more than four-in-ten nonworking people ages 16 to 24 say they’ve looked for work but can’t find anything.

Gender Shifts

Age is not the only demographic characteristic of the work force that’s changing. There are also new developments on the gender front — but here, the most compelling story of the decade is not the presence of change but the absence of change.

After marching steadily upward for five decades, the labor force participation rate of women has essentially flattened out. It now stands at 59%, slightly below the 60% peak it reached in 2000 at the end of a period of robust economic growth, and about 13 percentage points below the current rate for men.

Even in an era of growing gender parity in the workplace, the work/family trade-off continues to be much more complicated for women than for men. The Pew Research survey dramatizes these disparities; it finds that nonworking women are nine times as likely as nonworking men to cite the tug of family responsibility as a key reason for not having a job. The survey also finds that only a small share of the public — 12% — thinks the ideal situation for a mother of young children is to work full time outside the home.

As for men, their labor force participation rate has declined in this decade — just as it has every decade since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping such records in 1948. As of June 2009, it stood at 72%, the lowest level in modern history. The current economic downturn has hit men harder than women, with men suffering about two-thirds of all recession-related job losses. As often happens in a recession, a portion of these newly unemployed workers have become discouraged about finding jobs and have dropped out of the labor force altogether.

Other Findings

This report is based on a Pew Research Center analysis of long-term trends in survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau as well as on Pew Research’s own survey of a representative national sample of 1,815 people ages 16 and older conducted from July 20 to Aug. 2, 2009. Among its other key findings:

About this Survey

Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted with a nationally representative sample of 1,815 people ages 16 and older living in the continental United States. A combination of landline and cellular random digit dial (RDD) samples was used to represent all adults in the continental United States who have access to either a landline or cellular telephone. A total of 1,164 interviews were completed with respondents contacted by landline telephone and 651 with those contacted on their cellular phone. The data are weighted to produce a final sample that is representative of the general population of adults in the continental United States.

About this Report

The remainder of this report is in two sections. The first looks at demographic trends related to work; it is based on Pew Research Center tabulations of survey data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau. The section was written by senior researcher Rakesh Kochhar; the research and analysis was conducted by Kochhar and Jennifer Medina, an intern; and charts were prepared by research assistant Daniel Dockterman. The second section looks at attitudes toward work and is based on a Pew Research survey. It was written by senior editor Richard Morin, and research and analysis for this section was conducted by Morin and research associate Wendy Wang. Paul Taylor, director of Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project, edited both sections and wrote the overview. Senior demographer Jeffrey Passel provided programming support. Dockterman and Medina did the number checking, and Marcia Kramer copy-edited the report.

Cite this publication: . “Recession Turns a Graying Office Grayer.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (September 3, 2009) http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2009/09/03/recession-turns-a-graying-office-grayer/, accessed on July 23, 2014.

  1. The labor force participation rate refers to the share of people ages 16 and older who are either employed or actively seeking employment. It is different from the unemployment rate, which is the share of the labor force that is out of work but is actively looking for work. The unemployment rate typically rises during recessions and decreases during economic expansions. But, regardless of the business cycle, the unemployment rate can also rise if more people choose to participate in the labor force but cannot find work. In recent years, proportionally more older adults have chosen to remain in the labor force -- and this may have boosted their unemployment rate above levels it might otherwise have reached during the current recession.