Both trends, which took shape about two decades ago, have intensified during the current recession and are expected to continue after the economy recovers, according to Pew.
Demographic, Economic, Attitudinal Factors Play Role
Though current economic conditions and an aging Baby Boom generation are playing a big role in the graying of America’s already-gray workforce, Pew’s nationwide survey found that the growing desire of an aging but healthy population to stay active well into the later years also is a major contributing factor.
Key study findings about worker motivations:
- A majority (54%) of workers ages 65+ say the main reason they work is that they want to.
- Just 17% of workers ages 65+ say the main reason is that they need the paycheck.
- An additional 27% of workers ages 65+ say they’re motivated by a mix of desire and need.
- When asked to identify specific reasons for working, older workers emphasize psychological and social factors: “to feel useful;” “to give myself something to do;” “to be with other people.”
- Younger and middle-aged workers are much more inclined to cite classic pocketbook considerations: “to support myself and my family;” “to live independently:’ “to qualify for retirement benefits;” “to receive health care benefits.”
Economy Influences Decisions
According to the Pew survey, nearly four-in-ten adults who are working past the median retirement age of 62 say they have delayed their retirement because of the recession. Among workers ages 50-61, 63% say they might have to push back their expected retirement date because of current economic conditions.
Pew’s survey results are consistent with a related Pew Research Center analysis of US Census Bureau data that shows the labor-force participation rate of older adults – which declined from 1950 until the middle of the 1980s – has been rising ever since. This trend has accelerated during this decade, especially in the current recession, Pew said.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Census data show that in the current decade, a rising share of Americans ages 16- 24 are in school and a declining share are in the labor force – 57% today vs. 66% in 2000.
Less young people are entering the workforce for two major reasons, said Pew. First, about three-quarters (73%) of the public feels that youth need a college education to get ahead in life, up from about half (49%) in 1978. Second, younger adults (like all adults) are being hit hard by the recession, and some may have become discouraged and dropped out of the labor market.
Overall, more than four in 10 nonworking people ages 16-24 say they’ve looked for work but can’t find anything, Pew said.
Women’s Participation Flattens Out
Though women’s participation in the labor force had been growing steadily for the past five decades, Pew’s analysis revealed that it has now flattered out. At 59%, it is now slightly below the 60% peak it reached in 2000 and about 13 percentage points below the current rate for men.
As for men, their labor force participation rate has declined in this decade – just as it has every decade since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping such records in 1948. As of June 2009, it stood at 72%, the lowest level in modern history. The current economic downturn has hit men harder than women, with men suffering about two-thirds of all recession-related job losses. As often happens in a recession, a portion of these newly unemployed workers have become discouraged about finding jobs and have dropped out of the labor force altogether, Pew reported.
The official unemployment rate in the US now stands at 9.7%, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports that a significant portion of working-age US adults are unemployed or only employed part-time. These numbers do not include the ranks of those who have exhausted their unemployment benefits and want a job, but who have become discouraged and have stopped looking for work.
Additional survey findings:
- Security trumps salary: By a ratio of nearly two-to-one, survey respondents say they would prefer a job that offers better security (59%) over one that offers higher pay (33%) but less stability. It’s not the recession that drives this preference. A similar question asked by the General Social Survey in 1989 (when the economy was in the midst of an expansion) produced a similar result.
- Job satisfaction remains high: Even in the face of widespread layoffs, pay freezes and involuntary furloughs, nine-in-10 employed adults say they are either completely (30%) or mostly (60%) satisfied with their job. In recent decades, levels of job satisfaction have tended to remain stable through good times and bad.
- Older workers are the happiest workers: Some 54% of workers ages 65+ say they are “completely satisfied” with their job, compared with just 29% of workers ages 16-64. This is because a high percentage of these workers are working because they want to, not because they need to.
- Retirement is not always voluntary: Only about half (51%) of all current retirees say they retired because they wanted to. About a third (32%) say they had to retire for health or other reasons, and about one in 10 (9%) say their employer forced them to retire.
- Retirement gets high marks: Regardless of whether they retired volunarily or not, more than half of all retirees (57%) say their retirement has turned out to be very satisfying. An additional 23% say it has been fairly satisfying. Only about one in six describe retirement as not too (10%) or not at all (6%) satisfying.
- The public is skeptical about full-time working moms: Just 14% of men and 10% of women say that a full-time job is the “ideal” situation for a woman who has a young child. A plurality of the public (44%) say a part-time job is ideal for such a mother, while a sizable minority (38%) say the ideal situation is for her not to work outside the home at all.
- Most working moms would rather have a part-time job: Among mothers of young children who have a full-time job outside the home, six in 10 (61%) say they would prefer to work part time. By contrast, just 19% of fathers who have a full-time job and a young child say they would prefer to work part-time.
About the survey: Pew Research Center’s report on long-term trends in the US workforce is based upon analysis of survey data from the US Census Bureau as well as on Pew Research’s own survey of a representative national sample of 1,815 people ages 16+ conducted from July 20 – Aug. 2, 2009.