Too Old for Work

More than two years after the financial crisis, unemployment remains at 9.0%. Even as corporate profits rebound, the economy is still barely adding enough jobs to keep up with the number of new people entering the workforce. One of the main reasons the nominal unemployment rate has dropped at all is that some people who were looking for work for a long time have given up. If anything the nominal unemployment significantly understates the number of Americans—which The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts at more than 16% of the workforce—who would like more work than they are able to find.


The number of people out of work has been the most pressing issue in American politics for the last two years. It’s a large part of the reason the Democrats did so badly in the midterm elections, and it’s probably the main thing standing between Barack Obama and reelection. And it's an ongoing American tragedy, since many of those who have been out of work for a long time are struggling to support themselves and their families.

According to a new Pew report (pdf) 30% of Americans who are unemployed have been out of work for a year or more. That’s about 4.2 million people, which as the report points out is about equal to the population of Kentucky. That’s 25% more long-term unemployed than a year ago, so the problem has gotten substantially worse.

As the report shows, Americans of all ages have been out of work for a long time. But for younger Americans the situation is getting better. For older Americans, however, the problem is getting worse. The percentage of the unemployed who have been out of work for a year or more has increased dramatically among Americans 45 and older. More than 40% of unemployed workers 55 and older have been out of work for more than a year.

Companies simply aren’t rehiring many older workers. It doesn’t seem to matter what industry they’re in or what they’re educational background is. College graduates who are out of work are just as likely to have been out of work a long time as people without a college degree. That’s a problem because it means that many Americans who are still a long way from retirement—and who may have medical bills to pay or mortgages that are under water—can’t get work through no real fault of their own. It means that many Americans are, as Ezra Klein says, “too young not to work, but too old to work.”

Photo credit: Alfred Palmer

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