Here’s why people over 50 are supporting the U.S. workforce

New research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta reminds us that elderly workers are a critical part of the U.S. workforce.

Americans are retiring later, according to analysis by Federal Reserve bank economist Ellyn Terry. She noted that “later retirement was the largest influence” on how many Americans are working or looking for work — which is known as the labor force participation rate. Even though more Americans are also aging, Terry concluded that delayed retirement from older workers was offsetting nearly entirely the effect of a growing number of aging Americans.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2020, one in four workers will be “older workers,” which is why supervisors need to think about how to accommodate their needs and retain their skills.

Here are some advantages older workers have.

Older workers keep working past retirement age

The unemployment rate for workers who are 55-years-old and older was 3.4% this past February — which is among the lowest unemployment rates of any demographic in America. Some older workers use their job to stay active and engaged in their communities.

But for some, it’s not by choice. Older workers must keep working “to pay bills, especially health care,” Jim Seith, a senior director at the National Council on Aging said.

This work retention rate may also be because employers know that elderly workers are more committed to the role and are less likely to quit than younger workers, who change jobs more often as they figure out their careers. Tim Driver, CEO of, calls this a “turnover advantage,” estimating that the “tenure of workers age 50+ is three times longer than workers under age 50.”

Older workers are good mentors to young employees

Home Depot, which hires thousands of older workers to work part-time, designates certain older workers as “associate coaches” that will mentor younger workers, recognizing the strength of multigenerational institutional knowledge.

Older workers may seek more flexible hours as they get older, but they also are just as eager to contribute.

“These workers often play a mentoring role, a leavening role in the organization. They contribute toward a healthy culture in the organization,” Larry Minnix, president of LeadingAge, told The New York Times.

Older workers gain emotional maturity

There’s a persistent stereotype that aging means a time of loss and decline, which contributes to an impression by some employers that older workers will be slower. And for some labor-intensive jobs, decreasing physical abilities may affect job performance.

But there are benefits to age too. Older workers may have an advantage when it comes to controlling their emotions, according to a 2016 study in the Work, Aging and Retirement journal. The study surveyed how older and younger workers decompressed after work, and found that older workers were better at “adaptive emotion regulation strategies” like processing their emotions and talking about their feelings. This matters because other studies showed that after-work time was key to replenishing productivity and motivation.

Around 71% of the human resources executives surveyed in a Society for Human Resource Management study said older workers were “more mature/professional” and 70% said they displayed a “stronger work ethic” than younger workers.

Age discrimination is real and persistent

Older workers are still subject to discrimination in hiring, and when layoffs come around, they are also frequently the first to be cut. It really is harder to find a job as you get older.

A February study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco showed that older workers, particularly older female workers, have it rough. The study sent out 40,000 resumes in 12 cities across 11 U.S. states. If the resume for an administrative job was coming from a senior female applicant, she had a 47% lower callback rate compared with younger applicants.

For older men seeking jobs in sales, they had a 30% lower callback rate compared with younger applicants.

Overall, older applicants “near the age of retirement” experienced more age discrimination, according to the study. That’s despite the 1967 law that forbids age discrimination in hiring.

This evidence of discrimination matters to stakeholders because as the financial burden on the U.S. Social Security system increases with an aging population, a “major reform goal is to create stronger incentives for older individuals to stay in the workforce longer,” the study’s authors wrote.