Despite Improving Job Growth, Older Workers Struggle With Long-Term Unemployment


The U.S. economy added 227,000 jobs in February, continuing a string of steadily improving employment reports from the Labor Department.  Job gains have topped 200,000 in each of the last three months, and private sector job growth over the last twelve months is the strongest in five years.  Still, 12.8 million workers are currently unemployed, with 5.4 million jobless for 27 weeks or more.  Among the long-term unemployed, a disproportionate number are older workers who tend to suffer even longer durations of unemployment, and face severe barriers to job opportunities.

A new issue brief from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) on older workers and long-term unemployment finds that:

  • Older workers (age 50 and older) represented a larger share of the long-term unemployed in 2011 than they did before the Great Recession. This share is disproportionate relative to their share of the unemployed.
  • Since the start of the Great Recession, the number of long-term unemployed older workers increased more than fivefold, to 1.8 million in 2011.
  • Compared to other age groups, once older workers became unemployed, they were most likely to become long-term unemployed.
  • During 2011, more than half of older jobless workers were out of work for six months or more.
  • More alarmingly, four in ten older unemployed workers were jobless for a year or longer during 2011.  The share of workers experiencing very long-term unemployment increased most dramatically among older workers from 2007 to 2011.
  • Older unemployed workers face a double-whammy of discriminatory job market exclusion based on unemployed status and age.

The chart below shows the distribution of unemployment duration among the measured age groups in both 2007, before the onset of the Great Recession, and during the fragile recovery in 2011.  It shows that, in 2011, the highest percentage of older unemployed workers were jobless for a year or more (41.6%), and that among the age groups older workers were most likely to be long-term unemployed.

Distribution of Duration of Unemployment by Age

Job market practices that exclude unemployed job-seekers from consideration for employment opportunities continue to be a serious problem for all unemployed workers, but a particularly severe one for older workers.  As the NELP issue brief states:

Compounding the effects of a weak labor market on older workers, evidence shows that employers are explicitly excluding the unemployed from hiring consideration.  Because this kind of discrimination is more likely to affect those who have been out of work for the longest amount of time, older workers are more likely to be its victims. In February, workers age 55 and older had an average duration of unemployment of about 54 weeks.

“The severity and impact of long-term unemployment among older workers calls for clear and immediate action on policies that address barriers these workers face in the labor market,” said NELP executive director Christine Owens.  “Congress should take note of the numerous states considering legislation that bans hiring discrimination against the unemployed, and immediately pass the federal version of such legislation, the Fair Employment Opportunity Act.  Addressing long-term unemployment among older workers also requires targeted reemployment strategies, such as job training and subsidized employment programs.  Without measures like these, the harsh effects of the Great Recession will continue to impact older workers for years to come.”


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