11/08/2012 12:46 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

A Look At The Older Workforce -- Good News Mixed With Bad

America's older workforce experienced a dip in unemployment in October (5.8 percent compared to 5.9 percent in September for those aged 55-plus). Monthly unemployment figures tend to generate a lot of interest, but they often don't tell much of a story. A fuller picture of what is going on can be seen in data over a longer period of time, a year or more, for example. Here the picture shows a rather dramatic improvement in the unemployment rate for older people -- it was 7 percent one year ago. True, the rate for October is still well above what it was at the start of the recession, but it has been moving in the right direction.

The jobless rate for the 55+ workforce is, and throughout the recession was, lower than that for younger age groups. This is partly due to the fact that older dislocated workers are more likely than their younger counterparts to drop out of the labor force upon job loss, or after a fruitless search for work, and cease to be counted among the unemployed. Even so, the unemployment rate skyrocketed during the recession; only 3.2 percent of people aged 55 and older were unemployed at the recession's onset in December 2007.

It has been an especially rough few years for the country's older unemployed. For many who have persisted in their search for work, the hunt has been long, frustrating and unsuccessful. At the start of the recession less than one-fourth were classified as "long-term unemployed" (that is, they had been out of work for 27 weeks or more). As of October, that was the case for more than half. Average duration of unemployment for older jobseekers exceeded one year.

Moreover, not all older workers have the jobs they want with the hours they need. Many express interest in phasing into retirement or otherwise cutting back work hours before fully retiring. But not all older workers can afford that, especially if they are still paying off a mortgage, trying to set money aside for retirement, paying for health care and perhaps helping their kids. The proportion of older workers employed part-time because they cannot find full-time work is well above what it was at the start of the recession. This figure may drop as the economy continues to improve; however, many employers rely on part-time workers to keep costs down and seem unlikely to change. The pain that involuntary part-time workers experience comes through loud and clear in Steven Greenhouse's recent examination of shrinking work hours in the New York Times.

On the plus side is that after decades of decline, the labor force participation rate for the 55+ population began to inch upward in the mid-1990s and has continued to increase, including during the recession. It has risen even for age groups traditionally thought of as "retirement age," 65-69, for example. Despite continuing high unemployment rates, millions of older Americans have succeeded in remaining employed, and the number with jobs has increased in most months since the start of the recession.

Many older Americans with jobs have reacted to the recession and its aftermath by pushing back the date of their retirement. Working longer gives them more time to save, pay off bills, take advantage of an employer's 401(k) match if offered, and move closer to or beyond the age of eligibility for full Social Security benefits. All that points to a more secure old age for millions of older Americans when they eventually retire. And that is good news for both workers and the economy.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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