By Chris Adams

In an age of bridge jobs, the desire to delay tapping Social Security and the simple reality that poverty often lurks around the next corner, more older Americans are joining the workforce.

Sometimes, the workforce isn’t so accommodating.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Patrick Button of Tulane University gave an overview of an employment landscape that is often inhospitable to workers in their 50s, 60s and beyond.

Button, an assistant professor of economics, noted that the share of older Americans in the workforce has grown faster than its share of the population; right now, the share of seniors in the working-age population is currently 19 percent, and that’s projected to be 29 percent by 2060.

Meanwhile, seniors are also working longer, he said. For men, the share of men 65 or older working has gone from 17 percent in 1985 to 20 percent in 2017; for women, it has gone from 10 percent to 16 percent.

“We already have an older workforce, and it’s getting older,” Button said.

The reasons are many and complex. There are both “push” and “pull” factors for seniors in the workforce, Button said. On the pull – plus – side: good health lasts longer for many people, cognitive abilities remain strong, and work is tied to identity. On the push side: poverty rates are high for seniors, especially women, and Social Security and pensions are often inadequate.

At the same time, Social Security – as currently structured – is facing serious long-term challenges, meaning more people might need to work longer.

“So things are actually not great – and they are likely to get worse,” he said.

If so, they’ll encounter a weakening of age discrimination laws at the federal level, due in part to a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made it harder for a plaintiff to prove age discrimination.

Button described the discrimination research he conducts, which creates fictitious-but-realistic job applications, some of older people, some of younger ones. The applications are identical except for graduation dates.

Those applications are then sent to actual job openings, and researchers track the number of times the “young” and “old” applicants are granted an interview. Whether looking at clerical, sales, or custodial jobs, the older applicants all had lower callback rates.