America's older population has expanded immensely in recent decades, and a rising share of them are working far past the traditional retirement age of 65. In fact, a new study shows that Americans 75 and older represent the fastest-growing age group in the workforce.
New data from the nonpartisan think tank Pew Research Center shows that the number of Americans 65 or older has increased nearly fourfold over the past four decades. This group is less likely to be kicking back in retirement compared to their counterparts in the 1980s.
In 1987, only 11% of adults age 65 or older were participating in the workforce. In 2023, that figure grew to 19%, according to the Pew Research Center's new report. The organization says that the total of 11 million older Americans working today is almost quadruple the number working in the mid-'80s.
And the fastest growing age demographic in the workforce are people who are 75 or older: The study found that 9% of all Americans ages 75 and up are employed today — more than double the share working in 1987 (4%). To put that into perspective, the average age of great grandparents in the U.S. is around 75, and the average life expectancy is now 76.
What's more, this demographic tends to earn less money than other older workers: Those in the workforce age 75 and up make an average of $2 less per hour compared to workers ages 65 to 74.
Women and people of color more likely to be working in old age
Americans are more likely to be working past the age of 65 in general. But certain groups of older Americans are increasing their presence in the workforce while others are decreasing.
Women now represent 46% of all workers over 65, an increase of 6 percentage points since 1987; they're also more educated, with 42% of working older women holding a college degree compared to just 12% four decades ago.
Older white workers now constitute 75% of the 65+ workforce, a decline of 13 percentage points since 1987. Over the same timeframe, the shares of Black and Hispanic workers 65 and up have grown from 7% to 10% and from 2% to 9% of the total older workforce, respectively.
Why older people are more likely to be working now
Pew points to numerous factors causing the higher rate of employment among older Americans today. “This increase can be attributed to several factors, including higher levels of education than in the past, policy changes that discourage early retirement and occupations evolving to become more ‘age friendly,’" Pew Research senior researcher Richard Fry said in the report. "We are also seeing that older workers are less likely to say they find their job stressful, reporting higher levels of job satisfaction overall compared to younger workers."
Among the most notable changes was the overhaul of Social Security in 1983 that increased the age for full retirement benefits from 65 to 67. This overhaul has encouraged Americans to continue working past the traditional retirement age because, generally speaking, they'll get higher Social Security benefits the longer they wait to start collecting.
The 1980s also saw the beginning of a steep decline in the number of workplaces offering pension plans, which guarantee post-retirement income for employees and incentivize retirement by a certain age. Defined contribution plans like 401(k)s and IRAs, which have steadily grown in popularity for decades, place the responsibility for saving on employees and do not encourage early retirement.
These factors suggest that workers don't necessarily want to be working later into their lives. Instead, the report indicates that older folks find it financially necessary to continue working.
Improvements in health among the older population and changes in the nature of jobs are also key drivers to growth in the workforce of this group. Research has shown that jobs have generally become more "age friendly" since the 1990s as they became less physically strenuous. Pew Research also found that older Americans are generally becoming more healthy and able to stay physically active, allowing them to work longer.
Additionally, the Baby Boomer generation has largely reached the age of 65 or older. The wave of Americans reaching this age around now is much larger than the number of Americans past the retirement age in the 1980s.