Older workers are snaring an outsized share of job gains in the economic recovery as they put off retirement amid shrinking nest eggs, changes in Social Security benefits and improved health.
They're not necessarily limiting the pool of jobs for younger workers, says Dean Maki, chief U.S. economist for Barclays Capital. More-experienced employees are often more productive and earn higher salaries, generating economic growth that itself yields additional jobs, he says.
In February, employment for workers 55 and older rose by 277,000 from January, or 65% of the total 428,000 gains, according to the Labor Department's household survey, which is used to calculate the unemployment rate.
The more widely reported 227,000 total job additions in February is based on Labor's survey of employers, which doesn't include farm workers and the self-employed and often undercounts start-up firms. The government's March jobs report is due Friday.
Since the start of the recession in December 2007, employment for those 55 and older is up by 3.9 million, even as total payrolls have fallen by 4.2 million.
It's not that the recession has been easy on graying workers. Many older Americans laid off in the downturn won't work again, says Sara Rix, senior adviser for the AARP Public Policy Institute. In Februrary, they were unemployed an average 54.1 weeks, vs. 39.1 weeks for all workers, Labor figures show.
Rather, their ranks are swelling as Baby Boomers age, and they're working later in life, Rix says. The portion employed or looking for work jumped to 40.4% in February from 40.1% in January. It's up from 38.3 percent in February 2007.
"What you are seeing is more people pushing back" retirement, Rix says.
Among the reasons is a shift from traditional pensions to less-secure 401(k) plans that were hammered in the recession, says Steven Sass of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. About a third of 5,000 50-plus Americans surveyed by AARP last year said they planned to delay retirement.
Also, the age at which Americans can get full Social Security benefits is gradually rising, and life expectancy for 65-year-old men is up by 3.5 years since 1980. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy's long-term shift from manufacturing means jobs are less physically demanding, Sass says.
Financial adviser Peter White, 87, of Williamstown, Mass., retired in 1987 but returned to work in the late 1990s to keep busy and help support two of his children, who are in their 20s. "You can't sit around looking at the wall all day."
This story first appeared in USA Today.