labor Older Workers Shouldn’t Have To Live in Poverty
On December 2, Gary Rasor, an 83-year-old worker at Home Depot, died from injuries he sustained after being violently pushed to the ground while on the job. Rasor had worked at the store as an “associate” for nine years, and celebrated his 83rd birthday in the hospital just days after the attack.
Rasor’s fatal assault at work may seem an extreme case, but it illustrates the dangers faced by America’s rapidly growing elder workforce. These older workers are at far greater risk of death on the job than workers under age 55. While fatal occupational injuries among workers of all ages decreased by 17% from 1992 to 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “older workers incurred 56% more fatal work injuries in 2017 than in 1992. This trend is especially pronounced for workers in the oldest group, those aged 65 and over.”
Dying from your job in old age is the most severe of many hazards and inequities endured by the elder workforce. Startlingly, half of all new workers projected to be added to the economy by 2031 will be over the age of 65. In a ray of hope, a bill introduced in December by Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Marie Newman (D-Il.) would create an Older Workers Bureau to give elderly workers like Rasor a strong federal ally in securing better jobs and pay, safer and more age-friendly working conditions, and more opportunities to choose between work and retirement.
If passed, the Older Workers Bureau Act would have its hands full of immense challenges. Older workers today are disproportionately stuck in jobs that are physically demanding and precarious. Despite technological advances that have eased some of work’s physical burdens, more than 25% of older white workers and over 40% of older Black and Latinx workers toil in physically demanding jobs. Among men over the age of 62, the most common jobs available include delivery work, truck driving, janitorial and cleaning services, and farming and ranching. For women in that age group, common jobs include personal care, nursing and childcare, all of which are physically strenuous.
Analysis from 2018 shows that older workers are more likely than prime age workers (age 25 to 54) to be involuntary part-time, gig, or temporary workers. In the next decade, about 40% of middle-class older workers will be pushed into poverty or near poverty when they reach their sixties, partly due to lack of employment or low wages. Nearly 30% of older women work in low wage jobs and most are considered working poor.
Most middle and lower wage older workers are not financially prepared to retire and must work to avoid poverty and maintain living standards. Because of low wages, many older workers already claim Social Security benefits even before they retire. For work to be a bulwark against old age poverty and deprivation, that work must be decent, and work and retirement policy must be compatible.
Improving work and incomes for older workers also helps their families and communities. As Teresa testified before the U.S. Senate Joint Economic Committee in February 2022, if we don’t help older workers improve their bargaining power, younger family members will be pressed for time and money to help their impoverished elders. Meanwhile, our long-term care system will be populated by precariat workers. And our economic growth will continue to be impeded because we do not match workers to jobs and, on the demand side, because of less spending power within older communities.
An Older Workers Bureau would help empower older workers and ease the transition to full and partial retirement. No government body currently plays this role. As older workers make up an increasingly large part of the U.S. labor market, it is long past time that we form an Older Workers Bureau to hear from older workers and their employers, to investigate their needs, coordinate the vast resources of the U.S. government, and to modernize age discrimination laws and worker training.
Teresa Ghilarducci is a professor of economics at the New School for Social Research and director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis.
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and senior writer at the New School.
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