Long-term trends: delayed retirement, youth unemployment

T. Elliot Gaiser Host, CPR Podcasts
Font Size:

The number of people retiring later in life has increased according to AARP, with 33 percent of survey respondents saying they planned to delay retirement. An additional 44 percent say they intend to work part-time even after retiring.

This comes as an increasing number of young workers voice concerns that they can’t break into the job market. (RELATED: Young, Hispanic, and leaning right?)

Some have suggested that older workers, fearful about futures made uncertain by the recession, are forming a “gray ceiling” for young jobseekers by lingering in the work force.

Economic uncertainty may be one reason for delayed retirement, but it also fits into a larger pattern, according to economist Michael Cox.

“If you look at the talents people are getting paid for –– their contacts, people skills, imagination, emotional intelligence –– the work world has changed so that it favors the old,” said Cox, a professor of economics at Southern Methodist University. “It favors the mental world. It favors experience.”

Longevity, improved health and a shift toward a knowledge-based economy that isn’t physically demanding have propelled the productive value of older Americans upwards.

The average American life expectancy has increased by nearly 30 years, from 49 to 77, over the last century, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

With that increase in life expectancy, the age bracket when Americans have the highest income has shifted from 35– 44 to 55–64, said Cox.

“Work is generally less physically onerous. Productivity is less likely to fall as quickly,” said Donald J. Boudreaux, professor of economics at George Mason University. “The ability to stay in a job is enhanced. People can still produce.”

Youth have some of the highest levels of unemployment, with over 24 percent of young workers actively seeking a job but not finding employment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But delayed retirement by older workers is not the cause for high youth unemployment.

Cox said youth unemployment emerges from the same phenomenon that is driving older Americans to work longer.

“What the labor force is valuing with the old it doesn’t value in the young,” Cox said.

Automation and globalization in the economy have reduced the need for skill where youth has the advantage: manual dexterity, physical strength, or rote-repetitive intelligence for crunching numbers.

While there are actually more jobs available to entry-level workers than ever before, young people are less willing to take them –– especially if they believe they can wait for a better job while living off their parents’ home and finances, Boudreaux said.

“We’ve been starting work later in life,” said Cox. “People used to start work at age 10. Now that’s moved to age 20.”

”This trend dates back 200 years,” Boudreaux added. “When youngsters would be expected to work on the farm. This is a longterm trend.”

But Cox said he would recommend young people take the lower wage job to establish themselves in the labor force, even if it doesn’t seem ideal.

“Start developing people skills and emotional intelligence,” he said. “The main thing is get in the labor force –– even if it’s not that perfect job.”

Nikki Grey contributed to this story.