Wage gains stall as elderly compete against youth

 A job seeker reads over recruitment handouts during the Minneapolis Career Fair in Bloomington, Minnesota. Many seniors take part-time, temporary and lower-paying positions to remain in the workforce.
Ariana Lindquist | Bloomberg News
A job seeker reads over recruitment handouts during the Minneapolis Career Fair in Bloomington, Minnesota. Many seniors take part-time, temporary and lower-paying positions to remain in the workforce.
Posted July 01, 2012, at 6:14 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Richard InLove, 60, works 20 hours a week as a receptionist and office assistant in Eugene, Ore., and wants more. After losing a full-time job in a cereal factory three years ago, he hasn’t been able to find a second position.

“I’d do one more part-time job if I could get it,” said InLove, who has been with a local museum since 2010. “I am still looking but it’s been hard.”

He plans to join the record 7.3 million workers 65 or older trying to shore up finances battered by the recession that ended three years ago and stay productive. An aging population, longer and healthier lifespans and changes to retirement-benefit plans will mean rising competition for jobs and limited wage gains even after the economy strengthens.

About 74 percent of Americans say they plan to work past age 65, according to a May study by economists Jay Bryson and Sarah Watt of Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, N.C. Thirty-nine percent said they need to earn to make ends meet or maintain their lifestyle, and 35 percent wanted to stay employed.

“Many seniors simply aren’t in a position to retire,” said Watt, whose research was based on a Wells Fargo retirement survey done in 2011. “More people are hanging on to the job longer,” she said, as a result of the recession and some longer-term trends.

The job outlook may take time to improve as the world’s largest economy isn’t growing fast enough. Payrolls in May grew at the slowest pace in a year and joblessness has topped 8 percent for 40 consecutive months.

Many seniors take part-time, temporary and lower-paying positions to remain in the workforce. Since 2010, those age 55 and older are outpacing prime-age workers in holding multiple jobs, a Bloomberg review of Labor Department data shows.

There’s “more competition per opening,” said Watt, particularly in stores or fast-food restaurants where younger workers vie for positions that demand few skills and little experience, she said. Joblessness among 16 to 24-year-olds was 16.1 percent in May, about double the 8.2 percent rate for the nation.

High unemployment has brought more attention to seniors continuing to work, said Richard Johnson, director of the Program on Retirement Policy at the Urban Institute in Washington. Crowding out can occur “regardless of age,” he said, as depressed job turnover means there’s less room for others to enter, move up or switch to another position.

Nearly 17 percent of those age 65 and older were employed in May, a 46-year-high and up from 15.5 percent at the start of the recession in December 2007, Watt said. The percentage of those between age 25 and 54 working dropped to 75.3 percent last month, compared with 79.9 percent in December 2007.

While the ranks of those at least 65 are growing, their jobless rate remains close to the post-World War II high reached in 2010, and a record 42 percent have been out of work for more than a year, she said.

“Older Americans might plan to work but may not be able to do so,” Watt said. “It is definitely tougher for seniors to become re-employed.”

InLove struggled after losing a production job at $13 an hour with health insurance. ExperienceWorks, a national, community-based employment program for seniors, helped place him at the Lane County Historical Society and Museum, where he earns $9.27 an hour. He’s on call after a three-month stint as an after-school-care assistant.

“I’m worried,” said InLove. “I rent, and couldn’t move if I wanted to. There’s so much competition. None of the part- time jobs offer health care or vacation.”

Perry White, owner of Mr. Ribs BBQ in Kenosha, Wis., packs boxes a few days a week at a nearby warehouse to supplement income. He found work through a unit of ManpowerGroup, a provider of temporary staff, which pays him $14.25 an hour.

“It’s not stressful but it’s hard work,” said White, 64. “I tried retirement and found too much time on my hands. I’ll work until I get tired.”

Reasons to continue working longer, even as the economy improves, include shifts toward less physically demanding service jobs, contribution retirement plans instead of pensions, later eligibility for Social Security and rising health care costs, said Urban Institute’s Johnson.

The population of those age 55 to 79 will expand by 26.9 percent between 2011 and 2020, compared with 2.3 percent growth for 25 to 54-year-olds, he said.

“We’ve seen these things come to a head in the past decade,” Johnson said. “Older workers are going to propel U.S. employment growth in the next few years.”

Peter White, an 87-year-old financial adviser in Williamstown, Mass., says he will work as long as his health permits. The retired Wall Street attorney has been driving to the Pittsfield office of Principal Financial Group Inc. three to four times a week for the past six years.

“The money is useful and helpful, that’s part of it,” said White, who is also a World War II veteran. “Working is very therapeutic, mentally and emotionally. If you’re able to, I’d say do it.

”It’s a difficult market, but I don’t think I’m keeping anybody out,” White said, referring to the competition. “I have a lot of attributes to offer to my employers.”

Americans 50 and over are less likely to stay with the same company until they retire than in the 1990s, said Steven Sass, associate director of the Financial Security Project at Boston College. They are better-educated and more skilled, he said.

“The labor force will look quite different,” as the U.S. ages, said Sass, a former economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. “Employers who recognize this and adjust to this will have a comparative advantage.”

Older staff would be useful for companies that have large sales and customer-support departments and want steady, reliable workers with fewer family responsibilities, Sass said. Firms with diverse businesses could also take advantage of the combination of skills that an older employee can offer, he said. Still, wage growth could be under pressure as “there may be a glut of older workers, relatively cheap, who need jobs,” he said.

Workers displaced in their early 60s earn about 30 percent less in their new job than their previous one, according to the Wells Fargo study.

Tom Cavanaugh, 64, collects data for a marketing firm near his Greenfield, Wisconsin, home for $11-an-hour about four days a week. He had worked at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Michigan for 30 years, the last four in marketing, before taking a buyout in 2002.

“I’d like a better-paying job with more responsibilities but I’m kind of resigned I won’t get it,” said Cavanaugh, who also does occasional consulting for Toyota Motor Corp. “Most times when I apply for openings they want people who are 25, not 65. They want some experience, but not too much.”

He has used the extra income to install a new washer-dryer, stove, furnace and air conditioner in the past year and is planning a vacation. “It wouldn’t have been easy to do those things if I wasn’t working,” he said. “I’m spending the money. I’m pumping it back into the economy.”

— With assistance from Alexandre Tanzi in Washington.

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