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Older Men Left the Workforce in High Numbers During the Pandemic

Older worker

While labor force participation rates (LFPR) dropped across all demographics during the pandemic, men ages 55 and older showed some of the steepest declines. In May, the LFPR of men ages 25 to 54 was 87.8, down from 89.1 in February 2020, just before the pandemic began, a decline of 1.3 percentage points. However, men ages 55 and older experienced a 2.3 percentage point decrease in their labor force participation rate, from 46.5 in February 2020 to 44.2 in May 2021.

The LFPR, which is the percentage of the population that is either employed or unemployed (i.e., either working or actively seeking work), is an important indicator to watch for the 55+ in that when older workers leave the labor force, various factors unique to them could influence the likelihood of their ever returning.

Sooner Than Expected Retirement

Typically, there is an increase in retirement rates among older workers during recessions. The downturn in 2020 was no exception to this pattern. Pew Research Center analysis of government data showed that the number of retired baby boomers increased more in 2020 than in prior years. Research from the New School Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) underscored these findings, estimating that at least 1.7 million more older workers than expected had retired due to the pandemic recession.

While some 55+ men in high-income jobs with correspondingly high levels of retirement savings opted to leave the workforce during the pandemic, the SCEPA research suggests that financially vulnerable older workers were more likely to retire sooner. The Pew analysis found that the increase in retirement among baby boomers was higher among those with less education and thus more likely to be lower wage earners. These findings suggest that job loss concentrated among workers with lower incomes has probably been a driver of the decline in LFPR among older workers, including men ages 55 and older.

Other Drivers of Labor Force Exits

Job loss and discouragement about finding reemployment after a long spell of unemployment increase the likelihood that a jobseeker will drop out of the labor force. Over half of 55+ jobseekers were considered long-term unemployed in recent months (i.e., out of work for 27 weeks or longer). Meanwhile, some older workers in frontline jobs where risks of exposure and illness were highest may have left the labor force because of health concerns. Further, the pandemic may have placed increased responsibilities on employed family caregivers—or created the need for new family caregivers—also causing some to exit the workforce.

Age Discrimination is a Growing Problem for Older Men

Also potentially playing into the trend is age discrimination. The most recent data from AARP research, fielded during the pandemic, show that 78 percent of older workers say they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. Unlike in previous years, when fewer older men than women reported seeing or experiencing age discrimination, the most recent data found similar percentages among men and women.

As the economy improves, some 55+ men who have left the labor market may decide to look for employment again. While the immediate challenges of the pandemic in the United States may be subsiding, age discrimination could remain a significant barrier for these older jobseekers.

For more jobs data: Find the latest employment data in the AARP Public Policy Institute's (PPI) Employment Data Digest, PPI's monthly review of job trends for those ages 55 and over. Visit the AARP website's work and jobs section for articles on work and unemployment and job search resources.

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