Older Americans face age-related employment challenges amid pandemic

Older Americans face age-related employment challenges amid pandemic

Employed Americans 55 and older have experienced a relatively high level of job security compared with their younger counterparts since the start of the pandemic. 

But experts say that older adults who’ve lost their jobs may find themselves struggling to find another position due to their physical vulnerabilities, age and perceived lack of technological savvy. 

Out of all adults over the age of 55 in the workforce, 5.4 percent are unemployed, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly 11 percent of people ages 20-24 are unemployed, 6 percent of people ages 45-55 are unemployed and 5.8 percent of people ages 35-44 do not have a job. 

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But older people’s economic safety could be temporary.  

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise nationwide, companies are faced with daunting questions about whether it’s safe to return to work for all employees and how in-person work will be affected moving forward. 

“All the data are showing that the numbers are going back up, the vulnerability has increased across the board for everyone,” said Susan Weinstock, AARP vice president of financial resiliency.

Weinstock said a concern is that companies will not hire back older people who lost their jobs because they are at high risk for contracting COVID-19.

“The concern that we have is that the employers don’t use this as an opportunity to discriminate on the basis of age,” she said.

People over 55 already have a uniquely tough time getting hired back if they lose their jobs, according to employment experts. And if they find a new job, they rarely find a salary comparable to their previous position.

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“You are seeing employers more willing to hire workers regardless of age, so older workers are getting more opportunities. Unfortunately, those opportunities tend to be more hourly positions, not salaried positions,” said Tony Lee, vice president of editorial at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Lee added that companies looking for areas to make cuts due to the financial impact from the pandemic often target older employees because they tend to be paid more than others. 

“Salaried older workers are facing the pressure of a down economy. If a company is planning and thinking who do we want in this job? Who can do this job? Can we replace Bill who makes 100K a year with Steve who makes 60K a year? They’re going to look at that seriously,” he said.

The struggles faced by older workers could also disproportionately affect women.  

Women 55 years and older are unemployed at a rate of 5.7 percent, while 5.2 percent of men over 55 are unemployed. Weinstock worries that the pandemic will set women in the age group back economically. 

“[The pandemic] really brought us back years because of the child care and caregiving duties that women are taking on. I think once we’re past this, we’re going to have to really look at that and make sure that we can bring women back to the status that they were at before in their careers,” Weinstock said.

Prior to the pandemic, workers over 55 was the fastest-growing labor pool, but there were growing fears of age discrimination with this population in the workforce.

During the pandemic, age discrimination has taken on another meaning.

Remote and virtual work has forced workers of all ages to adapt to new technology to communicate with colleagues, and younger employees are often thought of as a more tech-savvy group.

Lee says that it is possible for employers to discriminate against older job candidates and employees who they believe lack an understanding of technology.  

“It’s a myth that older workers don’t understand technology; they do, just as anyone else,” Lee said. “We’ve seen some research that they adapt better because they tend not to have little children at home or other distractions at home, so they’re more focused.”

“Employers need to not fall for gross generalizations,” Weinstock said. 

The AARP vice president added that older workers tend to have more “soft skills” compared to their younger counterparts that make them valuable to employers, including empathy, being a good listener, problem-solving and exhibiting calm under pressure.