1 in 5 seniors still work — and they’re happier than younger workers

As Americans age, that demographic change is also impacting the workforce, with a new Pew Research Center analysis finding that 1 in 5 people over 65 are still working, a twofold jump from the 1980s. 

That translates into 11 million senior citizens who remain in the workforce, which by sheer numbers is quadruple the figure in the mid-1980s, Pew said. And it’s a trend that’s expected to continue, with Americans over 65 projected to be one of the few demographic groups with rising labor force participation over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Aside from giving a boost to the economy, older Americans who continue to work are likely helping their own financial situations as well. That’s because they’re able to save more money and delay retirement, which requires people to draw down their savings, noted Pew senior researcher Richard Fry. But there could also be a downside to the trend, given that it could reflect the end of traditional pensions and the inadequacy of some workers’ retirement savings.

“It’s not unambiguously a good thing” that more seniors are working, Fry told CBS MoneyWatch. “Partly some of this is that they are choosing to continue to work, but some of them may need to work even if they don’t want to because of the precarious state of our retirement system.”

The bottom line, economically speaking, is that seniors are earning a greater share of wages and salaries paid by U.S. employers, tripling from 2% in 1987 to 7% now, Pew noted.

Older — yet happier?

That being said, those older workers tend to be more satisfied with their work than Americans under 65, Pew found. Levels of work stress are also lower among senior citizens who continue in the labor force.

Of course, it could be that older Americans who worked jobs they didn’t like or found stressful opted to retire by age 65, leaving a subset of older workers who are generally happier within their workplaces and reluctant to retire, which is something Pew didn’t analyze. 

But there were some shared traits among 65+ workers that provide a peak into their motivations. First, older workers are more than twice as likely as workers 64 and under to be self-employed, at 23% versus 10%, which could signal that they’re small business owners, freelancers or the like. 

They’re also more educated than in past decades, Fry said. That jibes with other research that’s found older Americans who continue to work are more likely to be professionals in fields such as education or management, or in the arts.

There are a few other reasons why the share of older workers is on the rise, Fry noted. For one, jobs have become more age-friendly, providing seniors with work that isn’t as physically demanding as in prior decades. Also, seniors are healthier today than they were in prior generations, he added. And lastly, the retirement system isn’t what it was in the ’80s, Fry said.

“Another thing that has changed is how we do pensions,” Fry said. “We have switched, over time, from the old pension system to now most Americans don’t have a traditional old-style pension — they have a 401(k) or 403(b) — and many old pensions forced the employee to retire at 62.”

He added, “There are no incentives to retire early, so that has removed the incentive” to leave the workforce. 

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