Editorial: Will older workers return? 

In addition to the health and social repercussions, the pandemic has been disproportionately hard on the careers of older Americans. Some lost their jobs, while others quit, chose early retirement, dialed back responsibilities or made other changes in response to the elevated risk of suffering the worst effects of COVID-19. 

A study released in October by the New School in New York City found that for the first time in decades, older workers over a sixmonth period faced higher unemployment than counterparts at the midpoint of their careers. Researchers found that workers aged 55 and older tended to lose their jobs sooner, were rehired more slowly and continue to face higher job losses. 

From April through September, the unemployment rates for Americans 55 and up were 1.1 percentage points higher than for workers ages 35-54at 9.7 percent versus 8.6 percentUnemployment rates were even higher among older workers who are black, female or who do not have college degrees. 

Reentry to the workforce may be challenging with many industries still reeling from the economic downturn and due to continued concerns about the coronavirus. Older workers on the job hunt might face implicit bias from prospective employers. There also may be fewer opportunities with comparable salaries and benefits to their previous positions. In the worst cases, the pandemic may have been convenient cover for employers to shed older workers at the top of the pay scale and later fill those openings with younger, lower-paid workers.  

For those departing the workforce permanently, doing so early can have longterm effects on their economic security, shaving off years of earnings and savings, curtailing Social Security benefits and increasing the risk of poverty. 

Working into the traditional retirement years has become more common. That is due to numerous factors, including increased age requirements for retirement benefits and a greater variety of jobs that are not physically demanding. Some people continue to work because they have to, others love their jobs, want to stay busy or like to bring in some extra income. 

In an employment outlook through 2028, the Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information expects the number of working seniors to grow – mainly because there will be more seniors in general. The employment structure will become older with the population. Employment of those age 65 and over is expected to increase by 25,400 in the 10 years through 2028. That is expected to be offset by a decrease of 47,300 who are age 45 to 64, reflecting that more than half of this group will have advanced in age to 65 or more. 

Just what lasting effects the pandemic has on workforce demographics remains to be seen. Older, experienced workers are an asset and in many skilled professions in Maine, such as nursing and electrical work, they are critical to filling demand. For workers facing unemployment late in their careers, there are insufficient safety nets to help them get back on their feet and stay there through the retirement years. 

As the economy and hardest hit industries rebound, it will be critical for employers to recognize the value of older workers and to foster workplaces that are safe for them to come back to. 

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