Many Elderly Aren’t in a Rocking Chair: They won’t retire. And, as the birth rates slow down and fewer workers enter Western work forces, that can be a very good thing.

Many older American workers, with considerable skills and understanding of how to get things done, aren’t hitting the golf links, going to retirement parties or playing shuffleboard in retirement communities. They’re too busy working.

Indeed, in the United States, the elderly labor participation rate is setting records, according to recent research.

“More older Americans—-those 65 and over—are working than at any time since the turn of the century,” reports the Pew Research Center. Today’s older workers are “spending more time on the job than their peers in previous years,” Pew reported.

Seniors Start a Trend

This senior workforce growth has been taking place in a period when overall labor participation rates have been in decline. During the last decade, the overall labor participation rate—those eligible for work who have a job or seeking one—has declined from 65.8% in August 2007 to 62.9% in August of this year. These numbers come from the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The trend of more gray hairs seeking work or working is projected to continue. The number is “expected to increase fastest for the oldest segments of the population—most notably, people ages 65 to 74 and older—through 2024,” according to Mitra Toossi, a BLS economist.

This will come, BLS officials added, at the same time that labor participation rates for other groups will rise by single digits or in some cases decline. The recent trend of the elderly working reverses a long-term slide in senior worker participation rates.

“In 1985, 10.8 percent of the 65 plus population was working full or part-time or looking for work. As of last month, after incremental gains virtually every year over the past three decades or so, the percentage stood at 19.2 percent,” says Erik Kriss, a spokesman for the American Association for Retired People (AARP).

Kriss added that there is “every indication is that percentage will pass 20 percent in the next few years.” That’s because many seniors just won’t quit.

Gilda Miros, Super Senior

A longtime entertainer, writer, actress and radio host is one of those who will probably help push the 20 percent level.

“I’ll work until I die. I want to work to the last breath,” says Manhattan resident Gilda Miros, who recently turned 79.

The eclectic career of this celebrated Puerto Rican movie/theater actress as well as documentary producer goes on and on. Miros is the author of many books, including “Mis Mejores Entrevistas de Radio” (My Best Radio Interviews). She is an historian of Latin-American music and culture. She has known some of the leading artists, including the wonderful Cuban-American artist Celia Cruz. Active in so many artistic endeavors, Miros’ best years seem ahead of her.

Gilda Miros Keeps Going and Going and Going and…

Miros looks forward to plenty of work. “It’s not over until it’s over. And even then, it really isn’t over.”

She is also working on a Broadway play for next year, “De Las Montanas de Venimos” (We Come from the Mountains). It is a play that explores the Latin American musical heritage.

Miros is also part of the Performing Actors Legacy (PAL). The group demonstrates that those elderly performers who keep working are helping themselves in countless ways. PAL has research showing that most elderly performers have a very good quality of life because they “experience gratification” in performing their arts.

Why Stop in Your 60s or at Any Age?

Work keeps people going, the research found. But this is a conclusion that many studies have found. So the traditional idea of retirement—of grandpa or grandma withdrawing from most activities and “taking it easy”—no longer makes sense for the elderly or for society.

The traditional idea for generations was that people should stop working in their mid-60s; that they should start collecting government retirement payments such as Social Security and leave the work force. This idea, in part, was an invention of the American welfare state. It was designed to reduce unemployment in the midst of the Great Depression. (For instance, you faced Social Security payment penalties if you continued to work. You would get less in Social Security if you earned anything more than “pin money,” to use a phrase of one of the inventors of the program. If interested in more on this, please see my history of Social Security at Mises.com).

These welfare state assumptions of the 1930s no longer apply to many hale and hearty seniors. Many seniors like Gilda Miros have a lifetime of experience. They don’t want to throw it away for a life in the easy chair in front of the boob tube. Back in the 1930s, there weren’t enough jobs to go around. Today it is the reverse. Jobs, especially those requiring special skills or years of experience, often go wanting especially in Western nations where birth rates have slowed. The United States already has this problem, but countries such as Japan and many of the nations of Western Europe have it much worse. Indeed, even China over the long term is expected to face the same problem.

So let’s hope for more and more senior dynamos such as the marvelous Gilda Miros, a woman of great talents and valuable experience.

The Workplace Changed

Indeed, BLS officials say the elderly today aren’t what they were a generation ago. The elderly are generally healthier.  They have longer life expectancies than previous generations and, thanks to the information revolution, they know more than previous generations.

“They are better educated, which increases their likelihood of staying in the labor force,” says Elka Torpey, another BLS economist. She adds that “work in general has become more sedentary, allowing older workers to continue in the labor force.”

The elderly shouldn’t be on the golf links, spending most of their time in front of the idiot box or shunted to the society’s peripheries because of an elderly bias. We need them at the center with their wisdom. We need them in the work force, just as we need every other group, to make our societies better in countless ways.

About The Author

Gregory Bresiger

Gregory Bresiger is an independent business journalist from Queens, New York. His Personal Finance articles have appeared in publications such as The New York Post & Financial Advisor Magazine. He is the author of the eBooks “Personal Finance For People Who Hate Personal Finance” and “MoneySense”.