Census Bureau Finds More Working After 65

There are more than 40.3 million Americans aged 65 and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and many in the age cohort aren’t following traditional definitions of retirement.


Older men and women make up a larger part of the labor force now than in recent decades, says Enrique Lamas, the U.S. Census Bureau’s associate director for demographic programs. Older Americans are also accessing health care and other important services in different ways. For example, the number of Americans 65 and older living in a nursing home fell 20% between 2000 and 2010, from 1.6 million to 1.3 million, according to the Census Bureau’s new “65+ in the United States: 2010” report. At the same time, findings also show the number of people in alternative long-term care facilities, such as continuing care communities, grew by about 12% between 2007 and 2012.  

The Census Bureau released the research in collaboration with the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health. Officials say the nearly 200-page report contains some of the most detailed information available on the demographics, economics, and health and wellness characteristics of the United States’ over-65 population. The Division of Behavioral and Social Research at NIA commissioned the report and has supported three earlier editions, Lamas says, the first published in 1993.

The latest report shows labor force participation rates of the nation’s 65-and-older population varied significantly across states during a 2009 to 2011 sample period. Major retirement destinations, such as Arizona and Florida, had lower participation rates compared with Midwest states, such as Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, where a higher share of the older population remains a part of the work force.

Researchers observe that, between 1950 and the early 1990s, the labor force participation rate gap between older men and women declined, due primarily to the downward trend in the overall labor participation rate for men. Specifically, labor force participation for men aged 65 and older decreased sharply from 45.8% in 1950 to 15.6% in 1993, according to the report. In contrast, older women’s participation rates experienced relatively little change from 1950 until the early 2000s. There was no statistical difference between the 1950 rate of 9.7% and the 2003 rate of 10.6% for women aged 65 and over, researchers explain.

However, in the first decade of the 21st century, these trends reversed and labor force participation increased for both older men and women. By 2010, the labor force participation rate had climbed to 22.1% for older men and 13.8% for older women, a significant rise from their levels of 17.7% and 9.4%, respectively, in 2000. On the other end of the age spectrum, the labor force participation rates for Americans aged 25 to 34 fell from 2000 to 2010 for both men (93.4% to 89.7%) and women (76.1% to 74.7%).

Census Bureau researchers find the trend toward earlier retirement in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—made possible in part by the Social Security system and the provision of health insurance through Medicare—began to change in the 1990s for men and in the 2000s for women. For the past decade or longer, the proportion of older adults in the labor force has been increasing. Two outside researchers cited in the Census Bureau report argue that the shift from defined benefit to defined contribution retirement plans is likely the key factor behind the rise in labor force participation rates among the population aged 65 and over.

Among older men and women, those with higher educational attainment tend to remain in the labor force longer than those with lower education levels, the report finds. In addition, older women who were divorced or separated have higher labor force participation rates than older women who were married, widowed, or never married.

The report goes on to explore how the relative composition of the U.S. labor force by age group has changed over time. In 1950, people aged 55 to 64 represented 12.3% of the total labor force, and people 65 years and older accounted for just 4.9%. In 2000, shares of the labor force in the age groups 55 to 64, and 65 and over were lower than their shares in 1950. But in 2010, the labor force shares of these groups rose again, with the proportion at ages 55 to 64, and 65 and over reaching 15.1% and 4.4%, respectively.

The Census Bureau report suggests how old or young the work force is can also be reflected by the median age of workers. According to a previous analysis cited in the report, the entry of the Baby Boomers into the labor force helped drive the median age to a low of 34.6 years in 1980, when the Boomers were 16 to 34 years old. Since 1980, the median age has been rising, reaching 36.4 years in 1990, 39.3 years in 2000, and 41.7 years in 2010. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the median age of the labor force to reach 42.8 years in 2020, when the Baby Boomers will be 56 to 74 years old.

Among workers aged 55 to 61 (those just shy of becoming eligible to receive Social Security benefits), only 10% of men and 21.8% of women were on part-time schedules. As the age of workers rises, the share working part time increases, the report shows. For workers aged 70 and older, nearly half of all employed men and the majority of employed women were working part time as opposed to full time. For each age group, a higher share of women work part time compared with men, the report shows.

Other findings suggest many older workers are choosing to transition from full-time employment to part-time employment before full retirement. Rather than leave a career job and immediately retire, a large portion of men in their 50s and 60s transition into part-time and/or part-year “bridge jobs,” often in a different industry or occupation, before they officially retire.

The Census Bureau report also includes an assessment of the impact of the December 2007 to June 2009 recession on older Americans. Many older workers remained employed during the recession; 16.2% of the 65-and-older population was employed in 2010, up from 14.5% in 2005. In contrast, 60.3% of the 20 to 24 age group were employed in 2010, down from 68.0% in 2005.

The “65+ in the United States: 2010” report incorporates research and findings from many recent studies that draw heavily from the 2010 Census and nationally representative surveys, such as the Current Population SurveyAmerican Community Survey and National Health Interview Survey.