01/11/2013 11:25 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

Older Workers and the Great Recession: A Look Back Over Five Years

December 2012 marked the fifth year since the official onset of the Great Recession in December 2007 and more than three years since its official end in June 2009.

What does the picture look like for Americans aged 55 and older today?

More older people are in the labor force, either working or looking for work, than ever before -- 40.7 percent, up from 38.9 percent just five years earlier -- and more of them have jobs. This distinguishes them from their younger counterparts, fewer of whom are in the labor force or working than was the case five years ago.

These increases for the older workforce are part of a trend that began some twenty years ago. After decades of decline in the years following World War II, as men retired at earlier ages, the labor force participation rate of older Americans began to inch upward in the early 1990s. It has been rising ever since, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects further increases. And it isn't just people in their late 50s or 60s who are remaining at or looking for work; it is a growing number and percentage of people over 75 as well.

But the past five years have hardly been rosy for all older workers, especially those who have lost their jobs. In many ways, Fred Sanford of Orlando, Florida is a typical unemployed older worker. He was nearly 58 when the market imploded after the housing bubble burst and he lost much of his "book of business" in the financial services industry. He has spent the past two and a half years looking for a job in finance but has had no luck to date.

Like the millions of older Americans who continue to work, Fred wants a job because he has a great desire to be productive: "Work is good," he contends. Also like so many other older jobseekers, Fred has broadened his horizons in his search for work, applying for jobs in fields outside of his areas of experience and expertise. That search has been fruitless as well. The competition is keen, or, as he says "there are a lot of eaters now and not enough pie." He sees his age as a barrier when employers can get two 30-year-olds for what they think they would have to pay him. Yet like those older jobseekers who eventually find work, if and when Fred finds himself a new paying job, it will quite likely pay less and provide fewer benefits than he had been earning.

The unemployment rate for the older workforce is typically lower than it is for the younger workforce, which has been the case since the start of the recession. However, that rate soared during and even after the recession, reaching a peak of 7.4 percent in August 2010, more than a year after the recession ended. As of December 2012 it had fallen to 5.9 percent, substantially lower than peak but well above the 3.2 percent in December 2007. Average duration of unemployment has been close to or above one year for some time, and long-term unemployment has skyrocketed. By the end of last year, nearly half of older jobseekers had been out of work for more than six months. At the start of the recession this was a problem for less than a fourth.

The longer the spell of unemployment, the harder it is to find work. Job applicants may become "tainted" by the experience as employers wonder what is wrong with someone who hasn't managed to land a job. Anti-discrimination laws do not prohibit employers from refusing to interview the unemployed. Jobseekers have a tough time making a case for themselves and marketing their skills to employers if they cannot get a foot in the door. Those who are consistently rejected or whose résumés are ignored can become discouraged and give up looking for work. Displaced older workers are far more likely than the younger displaced to drop out of the labor force. When that happens, they cease to be classified as unemployed, which is one factor contributing to the lower unemployment rate among older workers.

For Fred Sanford, the struggle continues. Until the day comes when he is offered a job -- even if it does pay less than he once made -- Fred has been cobbling together some income by taking his other talents on the road. He sings and plays the electronic piano and with his wife performs at retirement communities. These aren't lucrative gigs, but they undoubtedly give considerable pleasure to the audiences that hear him. And they help keep this older worker in the labor force.

Dave Nathan of AARP Media Relations contributed reporting to this blog.