At Risk: COVID-19 Is Hitting Older Adult Workers Especially Hard
When Michael Jordan and the rest of the ’98 Chicago Bulls were putting the finishing touches on their Last Dance, older adults aged 55 and up represented just 12 percent of the American workforce. Fast forward to today, and that figure has nearly doubled. Not only do adults aged 55+ represent 23 percent of American workers, but they also represent the largest labor force share of any age group.
In Jordan’s North Carolina, there are nearly 600,000 active workers aged 55+, including the 57-year-old MJ, who owns the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats along with six championship rings. Surprisingly, the Tar Heel State is home to more than 27,000 active workers who are 75 or older.
While multibillionaire Jordan doesn’t have to worry about hitting the unemployment line, many in his age group do. The unemployment rate for adults aged 55+ jumped from 2.6 percent in February of this year to 13.6 percent in April.
What will happen as states relax their stay-at-home restrictions and Americans return to work? Older adults, at much higher risk for severe cases of COVID-19, may be advised by health authorities to social distance indefinitely.
There may be rough times ahead for many industries and the older adults who work in them. Older adults comprise huge portions of the workforce in many sectors that generally require in-person contact and are difficult or impossible to accomplish through remote work, including fields like transportation (more than 40 percent), in-person salesperson (more than 30 percent), and gaming (more than 25 percent).
In addition to the shedding of millions of jobs in the short term, it’s likely that older workers will have a more difficult time finding new jobs once life gets back to normal, or something close to it. In the Great Recession of 2008, about half of the people between the ages of 25 and 34 who lost their jobs had found new ones within six months. For people between 51 and 60, however, the average time spent unemployed as a result of recession-related job loss was more than nine months.
While this is tough news for older adults, employers and recruiters should recognize that older adults can bring some powerful advantages to the workplace. First, older adults are more likely to be highly engaged in their jobs. According to an AARP study, 65 percent of employees aged 55+ are considered engaged, compared to roughly 59 percent of younger employees. That same AARP study also found that turnover rates tend to be lower among older employees.
Second, older adults are not the Luddites younger generations make them out to be. Older adults can and do adapt quickly to new situations. For example, according to recent data from TheSeniorList.com, 24 percent of adults aged 60 and up ordered food or groceries online during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, a higher rate than all age groups combined in 2019.
Third, older adults may be more productive than their younger colleagues when working remotely. Older adults are significantly less likely to have young children at home and, for all practical purposes, may have fewer distractions.
The ’98 Bulls won the NBA championship largely thanks to their experience and adaptability, even if their raw athletic skills were not the sharpest in the league. Recruiters and employers should keep this lesson in mind as they plan to scale their workforces up again in the coming months.
Jeff Hoyt is editor-in-chief at SeniorLiving.org.