Older Workers Find a Silver Lining in the Job Picture

Restarting America's Job Machine
Restarting America's Job Machine

This is the third in a series of stories that takes a closer look at the U.S. jobs picture.

Who would have thought that older workers would be the first group hired back after the worst recession in 80 years? Yet that appears to be the case based on analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics by global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

According to BLS data, workers 55 and older are the only age group to have experienced employment gains since March 2009.

Surprisingly, workers age 55 to 64 saw a 3% increase in employment from March 2009 to March 2010, gaining 630,000 jobs, and workers 65 and older saw growth of 2.3%, adding 137,000 jobs. However, during the same period, the number of employed Americans 45 to 54 declined 1.6% (535,000), dropped 3.3% (1,031,000) for workers age 35 to 44, and fell 3.6% (458,000) for workers age 24 to 20.

Furthermore, the unemployment rate for workers 55 and older stood at 6.9% in March, the lowest rate for all age groups. By contrast, the jobless rate for 35- to 44-year-olds was 9%, the rate for 25- to 34-year-olds was 10% and the rate for 20- to 24-year-olds was nearly 16%. The overall unemployment rate in March was 9.7%.

Employers "Want People Who Can Hit the Ground Running"

"There definitely are obstacles for more seasoned job seekers -- some of which are institutional and some self-imposed -- and the recession has clearly tightened the market for everyone, including senior job-seekers," says Challenger, Gray & Christmas CEO John A. Challenger. "At the same time, the latest figures show that these job-seekers appear to be overcoming the obstacles related to age and the recession better than most people realize."

Challenger says older workers have made employment gains during the recession where others haven't because "these seasoned veterans are valuable to employers who want people who can hit the ground running without much, if any training." For companies that want to stay competitive, retaining workers who can maintain productivity levels is critical. Concerns about older workers marking time before retirement, adapting to new technology or being willing to take directives from a younger boss are being outweighed by the value of their experience in a tough economic environment.

Another study by Andrew Sum and Joseph McLaughlin of the Center for Labor Market Studies showed similar employment patterns for older and younger workers over the entire length of the Great Recession.

"The employment losses for young workers far exceeded those of all other age groups," the report reads. "Among older persons (55+), however, total employment at the end of this period was actually higher than it was prior to the beginning of the recession."

Challenger also notes that the job gains older workers made weren't just for low-level positions but were actually highest among management and professional jobs. According to the BLS, the number of workers 55 and older employed in management, professional and related occupations increased 5% from 10.9 million in 2008 to 11.4 million last year.

Editor's Note: This is the third installment of our six-part special report: Restarting America's Job Machine.