In our labor force, our young are looking for the entrance, our old can’t seem to find the exit. “One side can’t start working; the other can’t stop,” writes Ronald Brownstein in the National Journal.
Together, these twin trends have produced an economy in which the oldest workers are now nearly as likely to be employed as the youngest. From January 1948 through September 2009, the labor-force-participation rate of older Americans came within 8 percentage points of the rate among younger people in only one month. Since October 2009, the difference between the two groups has been 8 percentage points or less in every month.
Part of the reason for the shift isn’t necessarily negative, writes Brownstein. More young people go to school now and for longer, and many older workers opt to work longer because their rising educational backgrounds have led them to more satisfying careers. But that doesn’t account for the lengthened careers of most seniors. Rather, they are grinding it out for a few more years out of necessity, out of a lack of resources they were depending on to retire. Similarly, “the rapid recent decline in employment among young people hasn’t been offset by a commensurate rise in college attendance.”
Brownstein notes that these trends could be an opportunity to realign the normal span of working years, from 21-65 to 24-68, but doing so would require that the recently graduated but unemployed pick up some new skills and knowledge in the interim—which isn’t happening.
The potential for a lost generation of youth could have significant consequences for the elderly:
Above all, the class of 1967, which is growing reflexively hostile to government spending, needs to realize the interest it shares with the class of 2011: Unless today’s young people ascend into well-paying jobs, it won’t be possible to finance Social Security and Medicare for tomorrow’s seniors.