Recession Turns a Graying Office Grayer

Sep 03, 2009

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.

Read the full report Recession Turns a Graying Office Grayer on the Pew Research Center's Social and Demographic Trends Web site.

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