More Older Adults Are Working; What’s Tempting Them? - MagnifyMoney
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As Pandemic Continues, More Older Adults Are Working — What’s Tempting Them?

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The COVID-19 pandemic brought a significant shock to the U.S. economy in 2020. Unemployment rose to 14.7% in April of that year — a figure that doesn’t even include those who voluntarily exited the workforce. Many Americans lost their jobs, while others stopped working due to business shutdowns or fear of contracting the virus.

Two years later, under different economic and public health conditions, many people have returned to work. But while older people may choose to retire during economic downturns — which many did in 2020 — some of those older Americans are returning to work, as the unemployment rate has plummeted and job openings have risen far past pre-pandemic highs.

Even though the number of retired Americans 65 and older is nearly 3 percentage points higher than in 2020, the number of working older adults is more than 2 percentage points higher — reflecting the broader economic recovery and strong labor market conditions.

This MagnifyMoney study analyzes U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey data to examine the labor environment for older Americans, comparing data from April and May 2020 to April and May 2022.

Key findings

  • Amid the coronavirus pandemic, a rising share of adults 65 and older are working. In late April and early May 2020, 19.5% of Americans 65 and older were working. That figure jumped more than 2 percentage points in late April and early May 2022 to 21.9%. At the same time, the share of U.S. adults who reported that they’re retired is up similarly — from 14.9% in April and May 2020 to 17.4% in April and May 2022.
  • More than a quarter of working Americans 65 and older are self-employed. 25.6% of employed older Americans are self-employed — more than triple the rate among working Americans 25 to 39. Meanwhile, the government isn’t the landing spot it once was for older workers: In April and May 2020, 15.2% of employed Americans 65 and older worked for the government. In April and May 2022, however, that percentage plummeted by a third to 10.1%.
  • New Jersey saw the largest jump in older adults in the workforce since the beginning of the pandemic. In April and May 2020, 18.1% of Americans 65 and older were employed in New Jersey. By April and May 2022, that was up 18.9 percentage points to 37.0%. The other states with double-digit increases were West Virginia (17.2 percentage points) and Pennsylvania (14.6).
  • North Dakota saw the biggest dip in the percentage of adults 65 and older in the workforce. The rate of older working adults went from 36.0% in April and May 2020 to 25.0% in April and May 2022 — a drop of 11.0 percentage points. Other big drops were seen in Wisconsin (8.3 percentage points) and North Carolina (6.3).
  • Only five states saw a drop in the rate of retirees as a percentage of the adult population. The percentage of retired adults in West Virginia fell from 23.3% in April and May 2020 to 21.6% in April and May 2022 — the biggest drop across the U.S.

More older adults returning to work in 2022

There are many potential reasons why older adults may be unretiring, or otherwise starting new jobs. For example, there’s much more competition among businesses for workers, leading to sign-on bonuses, better benefits and more choices for job seekers. The labor market has recovered faster than expected over the past two years:

  • In April 2020, unemployment spiked to 14.7%, with 4.7 million job openings in the U.S.
  • In April 2022, unemployment was down to 3.6%, with 11.4 million job openings

Wages have also risen accordingly, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Median weekly wages were $951 in the first quarter of 2020, compared with $1,030 in the first quarter of 2022. However, due to inflation hitting a 40-year high, the real value of those wages declined slightly.

Both dynamics — higher pay and higher inflation — could encourage people to get back to work. Likewise, the 2022 stock market downturn could have older adults concerned about the state of their retirement savings.

Of course, the pandemic itself helps explain why a higher rate of older adults is working now than two years ago. COVID-19 disproportionately affects older people — though vaccinations have proved effective in helping prevent infections and deaths, and a vast majority of older Americans are now vaccinated. As such, older adults returning to work may feel safer interacting with co-workers or the public.

26% of Americans 65 or older are self-employed

More than any other age cohort, older Americans prefer to work for themselves. Fewer than 10% of workers younger than 40 are self-employed, compared to more than a quarter of workers 65 and older.

Type of workplace (by age)

GovernmentPrivateNonprofitSelf-employedFamily
2020202220202022202020222020202220202022
18 to 2414.1%8.6%65.6%71.6%8.5%5.1%7.3%9.5%4.6%5.2%
25 to 3915.1%13.9%65.2%64.5%10.3%10.7%6.7%8.2%2.6%2.8%
40 to 5415.8%16.1%59.6%61.3%10.3%9.3%11.3%11.5%2.9%1.8%
55 to 6416.4%16.0%58.1%56.6%10.5%10.1%12.2%15.3%2.8%2.0%
65 and older15.2%10.1%47.4%48.8%9.8%11.2%24.2%25.6%3.3%4.3%

Source: MagnifyMoney analysis of U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey data. Note: The 2020 survey was fielded from April 23 to May 5, 2020, while the 2022 survey was fielded from April 27 to May 9, 2022.

The percentage of older workers employed by private companies, nonprofits and family businesses — as well as those who are self-employed — ticked slightly upward over the past two years. In contrast, the percentage of Americans 65 and older employed by the government fell from 15.2% of workers in 2020 to 10.1% in 2022.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers tried to entice older workers to retire to trim their payroll costs — and government workers were no exception.

However, older Americans aren’t the only ones with fewer government jobs: 14.1% of workers 18 to 24 were employed by the government in 2020, compared with 8.6% in 2022. Even though the U.S. economy has a strong labor market, the number of government jobs hasn’t recovered to its pre-pandemic high, and both the youngest and oldest workers are most impacted.

More older people join workforce in New Jersey, while more exit in North Dakota

At the state level, there are some significant differences in labor force participation rates among older adults. In 2020, 18.1% of New Jersey residents 65 or older were part of the workforce, a rate that rose to 37.0% in 2022 — the largest difference in the U.S. During the early stages of the pandemic, New Jersey was one of the states hardest-hit by the virus, with deaths spiking in April 2020. That created significant obstacles for working older adults at the time.

Here are the states that saw the biggest changes in older adults in the workforce between 2020 and 2022:

  • New Jersey: 18.9 percentage points
  • West Virginia: 17.2
  • Pennsylvania: 14.6
  • New Hampshire: 8.7
  • Georgia: 8.1

Elsewhere, however, older adults are exiting the workforce, meaning some states saw a decrease in the rate of workers 65 or older since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those states with the biggest decreases in the share of older adults in the workforce compared to 2020 are:

  • North Dakota: 11.0 percentage points
  • Wisconsin: 8.3
  • North Carolina: 6.3
  • Alaska: 4.4
  • Maine: 4.3

Full rankings: Change in working older adults

States with the biggest — and smallest — jumps in older adults in the workforce

RankState% of working older adults, 2020% of working older adults, 2022Percentage point change
1New Jersey18.1%37.0%18.9
2West Virginia8.0%25.2%17.2
3Pennsylvania14.0%28.6%14.6
4New Hampshire16.5%25.3%8.7
5Georgia18.9%27.0%8.1
6Tennessee17.3%25.3%8.0
7Rhode Island14.9%22.8%7.9
7District of Columbia19.9%27.8%7.9
9Vermont25.8%33.4%7.6
9Oregon16.7%24.3%7.6
11Nebraska20.2%27.4%7.2
11Indiana13.4%20.6%7.2
13Washington15.6%22.7%7.1
14Kentucky19.6%26.6%7.0
15Virginia19.1%26.0%6.9
16Michigan14.2%21.0%6.8
17Connecticut22.7%28.8%6.1
18Minnesota17.1%22.3%5.2
18Colorado19.0%24.1%5.2
20Iowa19.9%24.4%4.5
21South Dakota19.8%24.0%4.2
21Nevada18.9%23.1%4.2
23Hawaii22.4%25.9%3.5
24South Carolina13.9%17.4%3.4
25Idaho23.5%26.6%3.1
26Florida15.1%18.1%3.0
27Texas23.0%25.0%2.0
28Missouri18.3%20.2%1.9
29Maryland20.5%21.5%1.0
30Arkansas16.0%16.7%0.7
30Montana24.6%25.3%0.7
32Alabama21.9%22.3%0.4
33New Mexico22.9%23.0%0.1
34Kansas23.7%23.5%-0.2
35Illinois25.9%25.5%-0.4
36Mississippi23.2%22.5%-0.7
37Arizona18.8%18.0%-0.8
37Louisiana15.2%14.4%-0.8
39New York16.4%15.5%-1.0
40Utah24.2%23.1%-1.1
41Ohio19.3%17.8%-1.5
41Oklahoma20.1%18.6%-1.5
43Wyoming26.2%24.6%-1.6
44Massachusetts25.2%21.7%-3.4
45Delaware20.2%16.3%-3.9
46California28.3%24.0%-4.2
47Maine22.4%18.1%-4.3
48Alaska28.9%24.5%-4.4
49North Carolina26.4%20.1%-6.3
50Wisconsin21.6%13.3%-8.3
51North Dakota36.0%25.0%-11.0

Source: MagnifyMoney analysis of U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey data. Notes: The 2020 survey was fielded from April 23 to May 5, 2020, while the 2022 survey was fielded from April 27 to May 9, 2022. Calculated percentage point differences might not match the subtraction of values due to rounding.

Percentage of retired adults drops in 5 states

Even though labor force participation has risen across the country among those 65 and older, the rate of retirees 18 and older declined in five states over the 2020-to-2022 period: Iowa, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and West Virginia. In each of these states, a higher rate of older workers reentered the workforce over the past two years.

(Note: The Household Pulse Survey data doesn’t provide retirement data at the age level, so retirement mentions are specific to all adults 18 and older — though it’s fair to assume that the largest subset of retirees would come among the oldest age cohorts.)

How retirement is changing, by state

RankState% of retired adults, 2020% of retired adults, 2022Percentage point change
1West Virginia23.3%21.6%-1.7
2South Dakota17.9%17.0%-0.9
3Kentucky16.4%16.2%-0.1
4Iowa19.5%19.4%-0.1
5Pennsylvania17.4%17.3%-0.1
6Oregon18.6%18.9%0.3
7Minnesota17.5%18.0%0.5
8Delaware20.5%21.1%0.6
9Utah11.8%12.6%0.7
10Ohio16.3%17.1%0.8
11Rhode Island16.0%17.0%1.1
12Tennessee16.1%17.3%1.2
13Florida19.5%20.8%1.3
14Washington16.4%17.7%1.4
15Georgia13.4%14.7%1.4
16Nebraska14.9%16.4%1.5
17New Jersey12.0%13.6%1.6
18Texas10.5%12.3%1.8
19New Hampshire16.8%18.7%1.9
20Idaho16.4%18.4%2.0
21Indiana15.3%17.3%2.0
22Missouri16.7%18.9%2.2
23Vermont15.0%17.3%2.3
24Massachusetts13.6%16.0%2.4
25Montana18.4%20.8%2.4
26Oklahoma14.9%17.4%2.4
27California12.3%14.8%2.5
28Connecticut14.9%17.5%2.6
29Nevada14.9%17.6%2.7
30Hawaii15.2%18.0%2.9
31Virginia15.2%18.1%2.9
32Arizona17.5%20.4%2.9
33Alaska14.0%17.0%3.1
34Colorado13.4%16.5%3.1
35Wyoming15.6%18.9%3.3
36Michigan16.9%20.2%3.3
37District of Columbia8.7%12.2%3.4
38Wisconsin19.4%22.9%3.5
39Maryland13.3%16.9%3.6
40Kansas14.9%18.6%3.7
41New York15.7%19.4%3.7
42North Carolina13.7%17.8%4.1
43South Carolina16.5%20.6%4.1
44Maine19.4%23.8%4.4
45Arkansas16.2%21.3%5.1
46New Mexico14.3%19.7%5.3
47Alabama14.5%20.1%5.6
48Illinois12.2%18.6%6.4
49Louisiana12.2%19.2%7.0
50North Dakota11.1%18.2%7.1
51Mississippi13.1%20.9%7.8

Source: MagnifyMoney analysis of U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey data. Notes: The 2020 survey was fielded from April 23 to May 5, 2020, while the 2022 survey was fielded from April 27 to May 9, 2022. Calculated percentage point differences might not match the subtraction of values due to rounding.

While some formerly retired workers may have chosen to start working again, less than half of those 65 and older are described as retired or working, per the Census Bureau data. There’s a significant population of older adults who fall outside the fluctuations of the labor market — they could be on disability, or perhaps have never been part of the workforce.

From October 2021: Americans 65 and older in these states are best positioned to retire.

Reentering the workforce at 65 (or older)

It can be hard for some older folks to navigate the job market. As an example, many job listings are posted online on sites like Indeed or Monster that work as virtual help wanted sections. Plus, plenty of employers post jobs on their websites and take applications that must be submitted online.

Learning how to create a resume and cover letter on a computer and apply for jobs online is the first step to broadening your pool of potential jobs. Beyond that, AARP recommends that older job seekers “age-proof” their resumes, by limiting them to more recent job experience and removing graduation dates. On the other hand, older workers can market their mentoring skills when applying and interviewing for new jobs.

Regardless of your age, learning new skills or pursuing jobs in a different industry can help you find work. Certain jobs, such as school bus drivers, appeal to older adults who prefer to work on a part-time schedule, though they could require certification in the form of a commercial driver’s license or something similar. Reaching out to your social circle may help you identify which industries are hiring for roles that might be a good fit.

For those more interested in planning for retirement than reentering the workforce, finding a financial advisor could be a good start.

Methodology

MagnifyMoney researchers analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey. Specifically, we looked at survey data from Week 1 — fielded from April 23 to May 5, 2020 — and Week 45 — fielded from April 27 to May 9, 2022.

The survey asked respondents whether they were employed in the past seven days. We estimated the percentage of adults 65 and older employed in each U.S. state in both periods, and then ranked the states with the biggest jumps — by percentage points.

In addition to employee data, researchers analyzed retirement data at the national and state levels. Because this data isn’t available by age, any retirement data looks at all adults 18 and older.