Older Workers Suffering Higher Unemployment Rates Since COVID-19

This threatens older workers' retirement security, says a report from The New School, in which it makes policy suggestions.

Unemployment rates for workers 55 and older have exceeded those of mid-career workers since the coronavirus pandemic hit, according to a report from The New School’s Retirement Equity Lab.

Nearly 10% (9.7%) of older workers are unemployed, compared with 8.6% of mid-career workers, those between the ages of 35 and 54. By comparison, in 2010, following the Great Recession, 7% of older workers were unemployed, whereas 8.2% of mid-career workers were.

The New School also says older workers who are Black, female or lack a college degree have experienced higher rates of job loss. It adds that the unemployment rates older workers are experiencing, compounded by the health risks of COVID-19, threaten their retirement security.

The New School is calling on Congress to increase and extend unemployment benefits for older workers, expand Social Security, create a federal Older Workers Bureau at the Department of Labor (DOL), lower Medicare eligibility to 50 and discourage early withdrawals from 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRAs). The Older Workers Bureau would research and analyze topics of concern for older workers, create policies to prevent age discrimination in the workforce against older workers and raise awareness about the economic and societal benefits of offering quality work for older workers.

“In every recession since the 1970s, older workers had persistently lower unemployment rates than mid-career workers, partly because of the benefits of seniority,” The New School says. “In the current recession, this trend has flipped. In each month since the onset of the pandemic, older workers experienced higher unemployment rates than mid-career workers, representing a recovery gap in age.”

The New School says fewer older workers were able to find work between April and September, with only 28% of unemployed older workers finding new jobs, but 32% of mid-career workers having the same success. In the past six months, older workers were 17% more likely to fall into unemployment than mid-career workers—and this isn’t counting the fact that some older workers have left the workforce. Black older worker were 26% more likely than white older workers to lose their jobs, and older women were 38% more likely than older men to lose their jobs. Those without a college degree were 45% more likely to lose their jobs.

“Persistent unemployment will cause more older workers to leave the labor force earlier than planned—increasing downward mobility and poverty in retirement,” The New School says. “The unequal distribution of unemployment—which has fallen more heavily on women, workers of color and those without college degrees—is likely to exacerbate existing inequalities in retirement preparedness.”