From a broad perspective, the jobs recovery looks moderate and steady, though still far short of being complete. But except for those age 55 or older, the labor market actually is quite sickly.
In February, the number of full-time workers under 55 was still nearly 9 million below their level in February 2007, while full-time workers 55 and up had grown by nearly 4.5 million. In other words, two full-time young and middle-aged workers are out for every older full-time worker that's been added.
The aging of the baby boomers explains part of this shift — the 55-and-up population has grown by nearly 12 million, while the 16-54 group has been flat — but only part. Older workers also have been hanging on to their jobs longer, pushing up the employed share of the 55-64 and 65-plus populations above pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, the recovery still hasn't done much to erase employment declines among younger-age cohorts.
Before the recession, economists believed that the impending retirement of boomers — they began to turn 62 in 2008 — would create a worker shortage in this decade. To this point, roughly the opposite has happened, with baby boomers holding onto their jobs longer than expected — too long, from the perspective of Generation X and Y workers.
The share of full-time workers who are at least 55 has climbed to 21%, up from 17% in early 2008 and from 12% in 2000, Labor Department data show.
Before long, baby boomer retirements should open up a flood of opportunity for younger workers, but they've been slow to pass the torch.
Employment's Rotten Core
The 44.2% of 55- to 64-year-olds working full time at the end of 2012 was higher than the 44.0% five years earlier. By contrast, full-time employment has barely begun to recover for workers 25-54. Just 65.3% of this core group had full-time jobs in February, down from 70.2% in early 2008 and not far off the early 2010 bottom of 63.9%.
Not only are older workers taking up a greater share of the jobs, but they're also apparently getting better jobs and better rewarded.
While pay typically rises with age and experience, the disparity has grown. Since 2000, median wages for workers 55 and up have grown 10% in real terms vs. 3% for those 35-44. Those 25-34 have seen real wages fall 3%.
While older workers have, as a whole, fared relatively well when it comes to jobs and wages, there has been more than enough meager wage gains and misfortune to go around.
Low-wage jobs only accounted for 21% of job losses in the recession but 58% of job gains in the recovery, according to the National Employment Law Project.
A new NELP study finds that more than half the nation's nearly 5 million long-term unemployed are 45 and older.
NELP concludes that the weak jobs recovery may continue to impair growth for years to come, with long-term impacts on wages and worker productivity.
"A recovery where 27 million workers are unemployed or underemployed, or want to work but have given up looking, is not the kind of recovery our nation needs," NELP said.
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