More older workers in economy of 2015

Labor shortfall likely to better their status

March 18, 2002|By T. Shawn Taylor | T. Shawn Taylor,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the next 25 years, the American economy will be dealt a blow that could slash productivity and put a stop to growth. It's not an attack from outside, but the aging of our own work force.

And few employers have given any thought to how they are going to deal with the crisis, labor economists say. In fact, indications are that employers will try to retain older workers only as a last resort.

"There is no evidence that employers are that interested in keeping their older workers," said Clare Hush- beck, senior legislative representative for AARP. "They praise older workers to the skies, and then they don't hire them and they don't go out of their way to keep them."

Age discrimination and stereotypes about older workers - they can't learn, they are too expensive to train, they resist change, they are less productive than younger workers - remain significant barriers in the workplace.

After being on the decline between 1992 and 1999, age discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission went up slightly to 16,008 in 2000 from 14,141 in 1999. The figures for 2001 are not yet available.

In addition, the recession has resulted in the loss of millions of jobs and could have a lasting impact on the number of people who remain in the labor force.

Older workers are less likely to lose their jobs, but once displaced they are less likely than younger workers to be re-employed, according to a report examining workplace demographic trends that was released by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

The expected labor shortage should be good news for older workers. Healthier than ever, better educated and unwilling (or financially unable) to retire, older workers shouldn't be seen as anything less than an asset, some experts say.

By 2015, workers 55 and older will make up nearly 20 percent of the work force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The workers who will follow the baby boomers are a much smaller group. Labor force growth is expected to slow from an annual rate of 1.1 percent between 1990 and 2000 to 0.7 percent through 2025, the BLS projects.

"When employers need workers, they will find that pool is older," said Sara Rix, senior policy adviser for AARP.

The GAO report says there were 18.4 million workers over age 55 in the labor force in 2000 out of a total of 140.8 million. That number is projected to grow to 31.9 million by 2015.

In the future, employers will not only have to rely more on older workers, but they also will have to rethink ideas about traditional work arrangements in order to retain them, experts say.

T. Shawn Taylor is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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