Labor Day’s forgotten older workers

by Christopher D. Cook

When we think of workers on Labor Day, who comes to mind? Chances are, it’s not the millions of older workers still toiling in our nation’s home care and nursing facilities, cleaning our office buildings, hustling around carrying boxes in big corporate warehouses, driving long-haul trucks or sweating in the fields to produce our food.

Amid the Labor Day platitudes praising workers, we rarely hear about older workers or elder poverty. Sadly, a lifetime of hard work doesn’t always pay off — millions of older Americans remain stuck in dangerous, low-paying jobs, with their senior years marked by financial fragility and no ability to choose between work and retirement.

Older workers, those aged 55 and up, are not a fringe group. In fact, they are the fastest-growing demographic in the American labor market at 37 million strong. A whopping one half of all new workers projected to be a part of the economy by 2031 will be over the age of 65.

Many are in lower-paying jobs, often dangerous and physically demanding, such as personal care, nursing, truck driving, janitorial and farm work. One research report concluded, “Physically demanding jobs are hard on the body and cumulative exposure to these demands can lead to declines in reported health, particularly for older workers.” Indeed, older workers are at far greater risk of death on the job than workers under age 55.

Over the next decade, about 40% of middle-class older workers will be pushed into or near poverty when they reach retirement age, partly due to inadequate employment or low wages. As CNBC reported, this growing risk of elder poverty “has been driven by depressed earnings, depressed asset values and increased health-care costs — causing 74% of Americans planning to work past traditional retirement age.”

Yes, it’s a paradox: Many older Americans must keep working into old age just to survive, while many others are pushed out of the labor market when they are not financially prepared to retire.

Workers need adequate retirement savings, but working longer may not be an option. A recent report from The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis concludes that many workers between the ages of 55 and 64 “get pushed out of the labor force due to age discrimination, layoffs, or poor health.”

Yet at the same time, many older workers are toiling longer, as the Department of Labor explains: “The economic downturn, shifting perceptions of retirement, increased workplace flexibility, and the aging of the ‘baby boom’ generation are all contributing to people working longer.”

What’s needed is both complex and straightforward: Older Americans need and deserve basic financial security, and the ability to choose freely between work and retirement. They can only make this choice if they are financially stable and secure, which research shows is not the case for, at minimum, close to half of Americans over age 55.

This Labor Day and beyond, we can honor the millions of older Americans who need and deserve economic security, safety and the ability to retire comfortably. We can do this by creating an Older Workers Bureau within the Department of Labor, to give voice and policy power to their urgent needs. We must also solidify and expand Social Security to ensure the most basic financial security for older Americans.

After a lifetime of hard work and paying taxes, don’t our seniors deserve these basic protections and security?  

Christopher D. Cook is a senior writer at The New School for Social Research. Teresa Ghilarducci is professor of economics and policy analysis at the New School for Social Research.