Older workers are the most likely to have jobs that can be performed remotely, making them the demographic most likely to be able to continue working during coronavirus lockdowns, a new US study finds.
Forty-four per cent of workers over the age of 55 were in jobs that could be done at home, according to new analysis by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. For workers over the age of 65, that number rose to 47 per cent.
“There is this idea that older workers are less able to work with computers or are less comfortable with them, and are at a disadvantage,” said Alicia Munnell, the director of the research centre and the study’s co-author. Though older workers could be perceived as being as less competitive in a modern, remote, workforce, she said the data showed that “in fact it wasn’t the case”.
It also allowed them to continue in their careers longer than planned to recoup retirement savings affected by a financial market downturn. “Older workers are fighting a good fight to show that they are capable, and they want to continue working,” she said.
Older workers are the fastest growing demographic in the American workforce. The number of workers over the age of 65 had increased by 87 per cent since December 2007, according to AARP data from February, and represented about a fifth of the total workforce by the start of the pandemic.
People living healthier for longer and higher levels of education have contributed to a skilled labour force. Retirement has also become more expensive, and is being put off.
While older workers are the most likely to be able to work from home, they have also disproportionately lost employment since the pandemic began. Employment among those workers over 65 fell 10 per cent between February and May 2020.
For the 55 per cent of workers who the study found were unable to work from home, going to work poses a dangerous health risk, as older people are considered more vulnerable to Covid-19.
“If you’re in a high-risk category and scared to go out, and you can’t work at home, then you’re likely to be unemployed,” said David John, a policy adviser at the AARP Public Policy Institute.
Unemployment late in life can mean a tough financial future. Those over 55 are less likely to be re-employed. They are also more likely to remain unemployed longer than younger workers and to dip into retirement savings to cover expenses. “And when they find employment they don’t find it at the same salary level as when they were displaced,” said Jennifer Schramm, an employment policy adviser at AARP.
Older workers who have held on to their jobs from home will also still face greater risk of job loss from ageism, in part because high earners are vulnerable to redundancies in an economic contraction, said Mr John.
“If you are going to reduce your payroll it is a lot easier to reduce your payroll from removing one $100,000 worker than three $35,000 workers.”
Still, he said, the survey showed that employer attitudes towards older workers had improved. “If you’re an older worker, the odds are you’ve reached a position where your knowledge is what you’re selling,” he said.
Strong representation in the home work force of the lockdown indicates the “value of older workers is better understood”.