Academic journal article Generations

Employment in Later Life: A Focus on Race/Ethnicity and Gender

Academic journal article Generations

Employment in Later Life: A Focus on Race/Ethnicity and Gender

Article excerpt

Until recendy, the central focus of researchers, business leaders, and policy makers interested in the labor-force behavior of older people was primarily on die phenomenon of early retirement. Namely, what factors promote exit from the labor force, and how can older workers be encouraged to retire to make room for members of younger, less expensive cohorts of workers? Widi the aging of die baby boom generation and die expected downturn in labor supply among younger workers, die focus is increasingly toward understanding die labor market experiences of older workers, including seeking innovations in the workplace diat may promote prolonged participation. This issue of Generations is a testament to our new-found appreciation of the older worker.

Concerns over late-life labor supply and die experiences and employment outcomes of older workers are intrinsically connected to the changing demographic composition of die population of older adults. Simply put, die American labor supply across all age groups is increasingly diverse with respect to gender, race, and ethnicity. Our understanding of late-life labor-force participation and retirement among women has increased over die past tew decades (see Hill, 2002; Munnell and Zhivan, 2006), but research and knowledge about older workers who are people of color is relatively sparse (however, see Flippen and Tienda, 2000). Contributing to an increasingly diverse labor supply is die unprecedented level of immigration to die United States, especially from I^atin America and Asia. One area where die increased diversity is important is in the human-services field, especially where the delivery of culturally competent services is required. This article describes the employment experiences of older people with special emphasis on these less studied groups. We offer more questions than answers but hope that raising diese questions will stimulate additional research and dialogue.

To appreciate die employment experiences of older people of color and women, it is useful to frame the issues within a life-course perspective. A central dieme of recent studies of late-life economic inequality is based on the concepts of cumulative advantage and cumulative disadvantage (Crystal and Shea, 1990; O'Rand, 1996). Simply put, it is often die case diat people who start life widi economic advantage compared to odiers maintain or even increase diat advantage over the life course. People interact with and are affected in different ways by important social, economic, and political structures and institutions, yielding considerable variability in income and wealth status in later life. The social structures and institutions diat are most influential include shifting demographics, labor markets, education systems, and policy environments (e.g., the mix of private and public pension policies).

Generally speaking, economic well-being in later life, including die ability to choose whedier to keep working and in what fashion, is based on many individual factors, such as an individual's human capital (e.g., education, work experience), health, marital status, and family stability, along with competition for scarce resources among and between members of specific birth cohorts. The consequences of decisions made by people early in die life course combined with variable climates of opportunity accumulate throughout the adult years. Eventually, we see the effects of these processes at die end of die life course, where older workers' employment circumstances and opportunities are more often fixed than may be the case at a younger age.

Existing research shows diat labor-force participation and retirement behavior are conditioned by gender, race, and edinicity (see Table i). Health status and pension availability are two critical predictors of labor- force exit behavior for all groups, yet women and people of color often have life-course experiences that result in disadvantaged healdi and pension profiles. …

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