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Job Market for Aging Boomers Will Favor Brains Over Brawn

Document date: July 23, 2008
Released online: July 23, 2008

Contact: Simona Combi, (202) 261-5709, scombi@urban.org


Washington, D.C., July 23, 2008—Baby boomers looking for jobs in growth fields that welcome older workers will want to dust off their diplomas rather than their treadmills, according to a new report from the Urban Institute.

Most of the fastest-growing occupations that already employ above-average shares of workers age 55 and older rely on an educated workforce, such as personal financial advisors, veterinarians, social and community service managers, surveyors, environmental scientists and geoscientists, registered nurses, and instructional coordinators. The list also includes postsecondary teachers, archivists and curators, social workers, management analysts, pharmacists, counselors, and business operation specialists.

The fastest-growing area friendly to senior workers is personal and home care aides. Other categories that depend less on academic credentials include usherers, animal trainers, locksmiths, and brokerage clerks.

Each of the top-ranked fields is expected to see its workforce grow at least 20 percent by 2016, double the 10 percent rate forecast for the national labor force. The portion of each occupation’s workforce that is 55 or older surpasses this population’s 17 percent share of workers nationally.

Will Employers Want Aging Boomers?” by Gordon B.T. Mermin, Richard W. Johnson, and Eric J. Toder, looks at the current demand for older workers—especially the 77 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964—and explores how it may change over the next decade. The study examines how changes in the nature of work, different occupations, the characteristics of older workers, and overall labor force growth might affect future job prospects for older Americans.

The study, available at http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=411705, uses data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment and Training Administration, and Census Bureau. The research was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Job Prospects for Older Adults

Jobs are generally less physically demanding now than they were in 1971 and less likely to entail difficult working conditions, a trend that bodes well for older workers. However, nonphysical demands have increased, and some of the most popular jobs among older workers—such as janitors and cleaners, home health and home care aides, maids and housekeepers, and laborers—pay low wages and involve physically demanding tasks.

The proportion of jobs with high physical demands declined from 8.0 to 6.6 percent between 1971 and 2007. Those with difficult working conditions—involving outdoor work, high noise levels, or exposure to contaminants—fell too, from 39.8 to 29.8 percent. The share requiring high cognitive ability (reasoning, written expression, and decisionmaking) grew from 26.5 to 36 percent. The proportion involving high stress and dealing with unpleasant people doubled, from 4.4 to 9.2 percent and from 4.1 to 8.2 percent, respectively.

These trends are likely to continue, the researchers forecast. Only 18 percent of all fast-growing jobs have any physical demands, compared with 52 percent of other occupations. High cognitive ability is very or extremely important for 57 percent of workers in fast-growing occupations, compared with 30 percent for workers in other occupations.

“Many workers approaching traditional retirement ages say they want to keep working, but it’s not yet clear how many will be able to keep their jobs or find new ones,” says Johnson, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute. “Employers seem to value older workers for their maturity, experience, and work ethic but worry about out-of-date skills and the high cost of employing them.”

To make older workers more appealing to employers, Mermin, Johnson, and Toder recommend that Medicare be made the primary payer for workers with employer-provided health insurance. They also suggest addressing legal uncertainties surrounding formal phased retirement programs, allowing distribution of defined-benefit pensions at age 59 1/2 while people are still employed, targeting government training and employment services better to older workers, and increasing employer awareness of the value of older workers.

Where Do Older Adults Work Today?

Older workers can be found in broad occupational groups in similar proportions as other workers, except they are more likely to be managers or in sales, while adults younger than 65 are more likely to have blue-collar jobs. A third (35.8 percent) of workers age 65 or older are in management and professional positions, 17.1 percent are in service jobs, a similar share have blue-collar jobs, 15.3 percent work in sales, 13.9 percent have office and administrative support jobs, and 0.8 percent work in farming, fishing, or forestry.

Of the 5.18 million full- and part-time workers age 65 and above, 181,559 are retail salespersons, the occupation that now employs the most older Americans. The other jobs with at least 100,000 older workers are farmers and ranchers (177,383), the immediate supervisors and managers of retail sales workers (164,507), janitors and building cleaners (146,364), truck drivers and delivery people (139,902), secretaries and administrative assistants (139,829), cashiers (110,508), and bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks (108,798).

The Urban Institute, based in Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.



Topics/Tags: | Employment | Retirement and Older Americans


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