Academic journal article Generations

Patterns of Work and Retirement for a New Century

Academic journal article Generations

Patterns of Work and Retirement for a New Century

Article excerpt

Recent departures from past trends have important

policy implications.

New patterns of retirement have emerged during the past fifteen years in the U.S. labor market. Public policy has increasingly encouraged older people to remain in the labor force, companies have changed their human-resource policies to fit new economic conditions, and many older Americans now seem to desire to remain in the labor force longer. Prior to 1985, the retirement age had steadily declined among older men. Since then, however, the labor-force participation rate of older men has remained relatively stable and has even increased slightly since the mid i99os. At the same time, the labor-force participation rate of older women, which had been relatively constant for several decades, began to increase significantly in a noticeable break from the earlier trend.

This analysis documents the changes in laborforce participation for older people and then examines some of the reasons for the changes in the timing and manner in which Americans are choosing to retire. Statistical analysis suggests that the trend toward early retirement may have ended and that the twenty-first century will be characterized by later, not earlier, retirement.

The two most significant changes in the United States labor market during the last half of the twentieth century were the trend toward earlier retirement by older men and the increased levels of labor-force participation among women. The distinct break in the retirement trends of both older men and women requires explanation and has important policy implications for the twenty-first century.

There are several possible indicators of retirement and retirement ages. The principal measure of retirement used in this analysis is whether or not a person is in the labor force. The Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies people as in the labor force if they are currently working or actually looking for a job and provides a consistent series of this indicator that spans the post-World War II period. Later in the discussion, other measures of worklife transitions are examined including retirement from a career job, phased retirement in a career, and movement to bridge jobs.


One measure of the average retirement age is the age at which half of the adult population is in the labor force and the other half is no longer working or looking for work. According to this measure, the average retirement age for men was 70 in 1950 (Table 1), but by 1970, it had fallen to age 65. By 1985, the retirement age had dropped to 62. This change represented a dramatic decline of eight years in the average age of retirement over a period of only thirty-five years.

The trend toward earlier retirement is also reflected in the similar sharp declines in the agespecific labor-force participation rates shown in Table i. For example, more than 70 percent of all 65-year-old men in the United States were in the labor force in 1950. Their participation rate fell by more than twenty percentage points during the next two decades and by almost twenty percentage points more during the subsequent fifteen years. Thus, by 1985, only 30 percent of 65-year-old men remained in the labor force.

Declines in the participation rate are also observed for men between the ages of 55 and 64, although the declines began somewhat later. For example, about 8o percent of men age 62 were labor-force participants in both 1950 and 1960. In 1961, the earliest age of eligibility for Social Security benefits (for men) was lowered from 65 to 62. Thereafter, the participation rate for men age 62 began to decline. By 1975, their participation rate was below 67 percent, and by 1985, it had dropped to 50 percent. Declines in labor-force participation are also observed for men below the age of 62, but these declines were much more modest, about 16 percent for men age 60 and 8 percent for men age 55. …

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