Are older Americans returning to the workforce?


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(NewsNation) — Around 2.6 million Americans retired from the workforce earlier than expected during the pandemic and many have since returned to their jobs, but early data suggests “the great unretirement” may be less of a trend and more of a fad.

In any given year some percentage of retirees re-enter the labor force, effectively “unretiring.”

From 2017 to 2019, the “unretirement rate” was about 3%, but at the peak of the pandemic it dropped to about 2.1%, according to research from the Indeed Hiring Lab.

While millions of Americans headed for the exit, a significant portion of retirees that otherwise may have gone back to work decided to stay on the sideline.

In fact, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City found evidence that the pandemic retirement boom may have had more to do with retirees remaining retired, rather than a surge of people leaving their jobs.

The unretirement rate has bounced back to 3.3% as of April 2022 which is comparable to pre-pandemic levels, Indeed found. That means about 1.7 million people left retirement and took a job over the past year, Nick Bunker, the Economic Research Director at Indeed, explained on Twitter.

Some media outlets were quick to call this “the great unretirement”, but economists NewsNation spoke to aren’t as convinced retirees are returning in droves.

“We’re back to a normal flow of workers coming back into the labor force but we haven’t really seen it go above where it used to be, which is where you’d expect it to go if all these extra people were coming back,” said Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, a research fellow at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Other markers, like the labor force participation rate, suggest Americans over 65 have not gone back to work at the same rate as younger people, whose participation in the workforce is near pre-pandemic levels.

“We are seeing fewer older workers in the labor force but it really is concentrated at the higher end of the scale (65+),” Sanzenbacher said.

With hundreds of thousands of job openings and unemployment at 50-year lows, the question of who will fill those roles remains open for debate.

For years, economists and demographers have speculated about the effect aging baby boomers will have on the labor market.

Since 2010, the population of those 65 and older has grown by 34%, according to the Census Bureau, and by 2030 all 73 million baby boomers (those born between 1946-1964) will be at least that old. At the same time, birth rates in the United States have gradually declined.

But that doesn’t mean we’re on a path to labor force doom; at least, not yet.

Sanzenbacher expects employers to lean heavily on automation in the coming years and is more concerned that switch could happen too quickly, effectively replacing workers before they are ready to leave the workforce.

As COVID concerns dissipate nationwide, it remains to be seen whether the rate of unretirements will rise above pre-pandemic levels. but until they do, headlines emphasizing “the great unretirement” could be pre-mature.

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