The working world is not always a welcoming place for older women, who suffer more than men do from age discrimination in the job market and have had some of the worst job prospects in the years following the Great Recession. Yet there are more women working into their golden years than ever before. Bloomberg’s Ben Steverman examines what’s behind this trend:
A prime driver of working in old age is education: Both women and men with college educations are far more likely to be working in their late sixties and seventies than are less-educated Americans, and the number of college graduates is on the rise. Past work history also matters. The surge of women into the workforce in the 1970s and 1980s means that these women, now older, have job skills, connections, and careers that they can continue to pursue.
As the oldest baby boomers reach their seventies, they’re not only working; increasingly they’re working full-time. Almost half of women working in their late sixties are in full-time, year-round jobs, up from about 30 percent 20 years ago, Harvard University economics professors Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz found in new research. A major factor in whether women postpone retirement is whether they like their jobs, said Goldin and Katz, who analyzed survey data linked to Social Security earnings records. “As jobs become more enjoyable and less onerous and as various positions become part of one’s identity, women work longer,” they wrote.
Children, on the other hand, aren’t much of a factor in whether women work to 65 and beyond, Goldin and Katz found. Having kids does make it tougher for women to stay in the work force full-time from ages 25 to 44—something Goldin and Katz blame partly on the fact that parental leave of longer than 12 weeks isn’t mandated—but it doesn’t affect their participation later in life. While these mothers may end up earning less than if they hadn’t had kids, they seem to be restarting interrupted careers once their children are older.
This is not specific to women, of course: In general, more Americans are working past the traditional retirement age and many people currently in the workforce expect to work later in life than their parents did. Unfortunately, that’s not always because they want to. Many older workers would like to retire but just can’t afford to yet, and that’s particularly true for women, Steverman adds:
“Americans now work more hours per day, days per week, weeks per year, and years per lifetime than almost all rich countries on the planet,” said New School economics professor Teresa Ghilarducci in an e-mail. Working even longer, she said, is a “lazy answer” to the American “retirement income security crisis.”
“Older Americans are nearing retirement with increasingly concerning levels of debt,” wrote Annamaria Lusardi of George Washington University and Olivia Mitchell of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in a forthcoming paper. Older women today, they found, are more indebted and “financially fragile” than older women were in the past.
Borrowers from 50 to 80 saw debt loads rise about 60 percent from 2003 to 2015, even as younger borrowers’ debt loads fell somewhat. Two-thirds of people 65 to 74 have debt, and people 65 and older are the fastest-growing group of bankruptcy filers. And women with debt—particularly mortgage debt—are more likely to end up working at age 65, Lusardi and Mitchell found.