Tea Leaf: The Great Recession and 'that aging thing'

Published: Wednesday, April 20 2011 4:00 p.m. MDT

It's no secret that many economic and financial areas were severely impacted by what we now call the Great Recession, the worst since the Great Depression. The changing nature of retirement would easily find a place on the list.

Millions of people who judiciously saved during their working years had visions of early retirement, with a view that diligent efforts to save money would help them meet income needs in their Golden Years. Many people have been able to live their dream.

Unfortunately, millions of others saw their dreams either tarnished or shattered, with loss of employment, sharp declines in the value of retirement funds and unexpected declines in home values. Every age group, every generation, every part of the country was hurt by economic and financial developments of the past few years.

Yes … but

The nation's official unemployment rate declined from 9.8 percent last November to 8.8 percent in March — the fastest four-month decline in 27 years and clearly good news. There is more to the story, however.

One reason the unemployment rate is lower is the fact that a smaller share of Americans are at work or counted as part of the labor force than at any time since 1983. Just 45.4 percent of Americans (of all ages) were employed during 2010, down from a peak of 49.3 percent in 2000, according to USA Today.

In terms of working-age adults, the civilian labor force participation rate held at 64.2 percent in March, while the employment to population ratio was 58.5 percent, both down in recent years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS. Only 66.8 percent of men held jobs last year — the lowest level on record — versus more than 80 percent of men who held jobs during the 1960s. National unemployment rates would now be regularly quoted in the 10 percent to 12 percent range if the share of people counted as part of the labor force today matched that of just a few years ago.

Long-term trends

It's no secret that working-age men had been leaving the work force for decades. Others took an early retirement incentive from an employer, hoping to then find other gainful employment.

Still others with a specific skill set lost jobs and were unable to obtain similar employment, leading to an earlier retirement than previously planned. The loss of millions of jobs in construction and manufacturing in recent years simply added to the exodus.

The rise of women holding jobs largely offset the loss of working men in recent decades. The share of women holding jobs rose from 36 percent in 1960 to 57 percent in 1995, with the total soon leveling off. The share of women employed was 56 percent in 2010, according to USA Today.

Now working longer

Shattered dreams of early retirement, or less belief of just a routine retirement at 65, have led a greater share of older men to stay in, or return to, the labor force in recent years. During the prior economic upswing lasting six years between November 2001 and November 2007, a net 10.4 million jobs were created. Almost one in seven jobs was filled by workers age 55 or older, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Since the Great Recession began in late 2007, 7.4 million jobs have disappeared. For over-55s however, a net 1.8 million jobs have been added. This reflects more people putting off retirement for various reasons, as well as companies taking advantage of those workers with proven skills.

The labor force participation rate among those over age 55 bottomed out in the mid-1990s at 29 percent. It has since risen by 11 percent to 40 percent. For those over 65, the rate has gone from around 12 percent to 17 percent during the same time, according to The Wall Street Journal.

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