WASHINGTON — Americans 60 or older are more likely than ever to have college degrees, helping redefine work and retirement as educated baby boomers swell the senior population at rates faster than young adults earn diplomas.
Census figures released Thursday highlight changes in U.S. college completion, which reached a high of 30.4 percent last year. It comes amid increasing shares of older Americans in the workplace and record drops in employment for young adults, an age twist that is historically unprecedented.
“This is an important milestone in our history,” Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said, referring to the increase in people with college degrees across all age groups. “The more education people have the more likely they are to have a job and earn more money, particularly for individuals who hold a bachelor’s degree.”
The college gains are making it easier for older Americans to work later in life because they are more likely than their parents’ generation to hold higher-skilled jobs, which are seen as harder to replace. Due to increased life expectancy, rising health care costs and other financial incentives to keep working, the government projects that 1 in 4 workers by 2020 will be at least 55 year s old — up from 1 in 5 today.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t work. It’s just so enlightening, and I love all the people I work with,” said Lillian Gourley, 83, of Southbury, Conn. Spending much of her career in advertising, she decided eight years ago to return to the workforce after retirement to help pay off bills in between her daily activities of gardening, socializing and visits to her daughters and grandchildren.
Based on her work experience, she was quickly offered a job at a local newspaper as a receptionist, a position she held throughout the economic downturn. Gourley says she enjoys interacting with younger coworkers — the “kids” — and believes the workplace as a whole is enriched by having a wide group of employees who bring energy, know-how and wisdom to their jobs.
“As long as I can, I want to work, and when I stop enjoying it then I’ll stop,” said Gourley, who earned an art degree in 1949. “I just can’t imagine sitting around at home, doing nothing and complaining.”
Demographers say the improved job fortunes for educated, older Americans are commonplace.
“Older workers gained the most and lost the least over the recession, and education was an important factor,” said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, citing their combination of experience and training.
He noted that the biggest job losses were among less-educated younger men, who struggled with reduced demand for blue-collar jobs in construction, manufacturing and transportation. “Employers for the most part over the last decade did not hire young workers, and when times got bad, they did not lay off as many older workers.”
Currently, about 26 percent of Americans 60 and older have a bachelor’s degree, up from 13 percent in 1992 and now an all-time high. Educational gains among older Americans are being fueled by waves of aging college graduates who attended school in higher numbers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s following government expansions of a military G.I. bill that helped pay tuition costs. Increased enrollment in adult continuing education programs also have bolstered the gains.
Increased education levels among older Americans is a shift from their parents’ generations, who didn’t need a college degree to find a good-paying job in manufacturing or construction. Much of that blue-collar work, however, has since moved overseas, driving down wages for the fewer jobs that remained in the U.S.