How the Pandemic Has Pushed Older Workers to “Involuntary Retirement”

This year has been particularly unkind to seniors

elderly man sitting by himself on a bench
Since March, about 2.9 million workers between the ages of 55 and 70 have left the American labor force.
Nick Cooper/Unsplash

According to research from the New School’s Retirement Equity Lab, 2.9 million workers between the ages of 55 and 70 have left the American labor force since March. To have officially “exited” the labor market, you have to be either A) not working, or B) not looking for work. Researchers expect that number to reach an unprecedented four million in total by November, magnifying a stark issue within an already troubling unemployment crisis: senior employees are being left behind.

Older workers in sectors like manufacturing, transportation and education have seen their jobs disappear during the pandemic, or simply lost them to younger workers, who often cost less in benefits, have fewer health concerns and are more adept with technology. Employers requesting flexible workplace arrangements (WFH some days, work in-person on others), could very well be favoring applicants from younger cohorts. Whatever the reason, 16.5 percent of eligible workers over 65 are currently unemployed, or employed part-time and actively looking for a full position.

Economists are concerned. As has been a common refrain with the COVID-19 pandemic, this trend has underlined preexisting woes throughout the country. The treatment of older workers was already on the decline; for decades now, they’ve been pushed out of jobs before they’re ready to leave, as various industries have come to value their years of wisdom less, and judge their price-tags as too steep. And because older workers take longer to get rehired (a heartbreaking 59 percent don’t find a new job in the following 18 months), with little promise of making the same salary they’d been making, that can often be the last straw.

The so-called “involuntary retirement” that happens as a result leaves seniors with few options, especially during a pandemic. Many will have to turn Social Security early, which will dilute their benefits. Others plan to subsist on unemployment checks, pray the government passes another stimulus package and hope that one day soon they’ll be able to jump back in.

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