Monday, September 08, 2003

Yeah and the moon is made of cheese - from the New York Times
Older Workers Are Thriving Despite Recent Hard Times

"Without fanfare, older workers — the ones seemingly left behind by the boom — are turning out to be the only group thriving in the jobless recovery.

Even as younger workers have lost ground, a higher percentage of those aged 55 to 64 hold jobs today than when the economy plunged into hard times in early 2001. Their success has shifted the composition of the work force: older people now make up 12 percent of the nation's workers, up from 10.2 percent in 2000. That was the year the dot-com boom, so favorable to the young, began to collapse.

As if to rub in the point, the raises given in America today go disproportionately to workers in their last decade before retirement.

These older workers, particularly women, are enjoying an unusual late-in-life success — as survivors of the disintegrating job security that began to spread through the work force early in their careers, undermining pensions and lifetime employment. Layoffs and retirement reduced their ranks in the recession in the early 1990's and its aftermath, but not this time.

"I am surprised by their resilience," said Robert M. Hutchens, an economist at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. So were a dozen other experts interviewed. Like the wider public, most had the impression that older workers were suffering. The data compiled by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics now tells an unmistakably different story.

The reasons vary. Men who got new jobs after layoffs are trying to recoup lost pay in their final preretirement years. Or they never lost a job, but with pensions shrinking, they cannot afford to retire, even taking Social Security into account. Women play a big role. Many entered the work force in their 40's and still consider themselves in midcareer, or they have not saved enough to retire.

Many employers are holding onto older staff members until the economy strengthens and they hire again, among younger people.

Since March 2001, when the last recession began, the percentage of working people in the population of 55- to 64-year-olds has steadily risen, reaching a peak of 60 percent in the spring, or 16.4 million men and women, up from 58.1 percent and 14.5 million workers. While that gain appears to have tapered off this summer, the older workers were still the only age group to improve their lot in the recession and jobless recovery.

Demographics play a role in these numbers. The oldest baby boomers are 57 and as they have entered the ranks of the nation's older workers over the last three years, the job holders among them have increased both the number and the percentage of those employed in the group as a whole. But even without counting the baby boomers — counting only the 60- to 64-year-olds, for example — the percentage at work has still held up better since March 2001 than for any other age group, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

Reflecting this success, the average weekly wage of the 55- to 64-year-olds, adjusted for inflation, reached $673 by the end of last year, up 4.5 percent from the $644 in 2000. That is a faster pace than the wage gains of any other age group, according to the Economic Policy Institute, which analyzed the bureau's wage data. Only the 25- to 34-year-olds, earning $590 in 2002, came close, increasing their average wage by 2.7 percent over the same period.

Union membership, more concentrated among older workers, may have played a role in lifting their wages. And good fortune helped. Wages and employment have risen in health care, for example, and this is a sector where 55- to 64-year-olds are disproportionately represented.

"The pure economist in me says that if the wage numbers are going in the same direction as the employment, then that is demand driven," said Harry Holzer, a labor economist at Georgetown University.

The demand among employers for older workers does seem to have risen, but other experts argue that supply also plays a role. More than in the past, older people seem determined to stay in the work force at least until retirement age."

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