Commentary: Older workers should not have to live in poverty | Opinion

On December 2, Gary Rasor, an 83-year-old worker at Home Depot, died from injuries he sustained after being violently pushed to the floor at work. Rasor had worked at the store as an “associate” for nine years and had celebrated his 83rd birthday in hospital just days after the attack.

Rasor’s fatal assault on the job may seem like an extreme case, but it illustrates the dangers facing America’s rapidly growing older workforce. These older workers are at a much higher risk of death on the job than workers under the age of 55. While fatal workplace injuries among workers of all ages decreased by 17% between 1992 and 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “older workers 56% more fatal workplace injuries in 2017 than in 1992. This trend is particularly pronounced for the oldest workers, those aged 65 and over.

Dying of work in old age is the most serious of the many risks and inequalities faced by the older workforce. Surprisingly, half of all new workers expected to be added to the economy by 2031 will be over 65. In a silver lining, a bill introduced in December by Reps. Don Beyer, D-Va., and Marie Newman, D-Ill., would create an Office of Older Workers to give older workers like Rasor a federal ally to achieve better jobs and wages, safer and more age-friendly working conditions, and more opportunities to choose between work and retirement.

If passed, the Office for Older Workers Act would have its hands full of immense challenges. Today, older workers are disproportionately stuck in physically demanding and precarious jobs. Despite advances in technology that have eased some of the physical burdens of work, more than 25% of older white workers and more than 40% of older black and Latinx workers struggle in physically demanding jobs. Among men over 62, the most commonly available jobs include delivery work, truck driving, janitorial and cleaning services, and farming and ranching. For women in this age group, common jobs include personal care, nursing, and childcare, all of which are physically demanding.

A 2018 analysis shows that older workers are more likely than prime-age workers (25 to 54) to be involuntary part-time, gig or temporary workers.

Over the next decade, about 40% of middle-class older workers will fall into poverty or near-poverty when they reach their 60s, in part because of lack of jobs or low wages.

Nearly 30% of older women work in low-wage jobs and most are considered working poor.

Most middle- and low-wage older workers are not financially ready to retire and must work to avoid poverty and maintain their standard of living. Due to low wages, many older workers are already claiming social security benefits before they even retire. For work to be a bulwark against poverty and the deprivations of the elderly, this work must be decent, and work and retirement policies must be compatible.

Improving the work and incomes of older workers also helps their families and communities. As Teresa testified before the US Senate Joint Economic Committee in February 2022, if we don’t help older workers improve their bargaining power, younger family members will be pressed for time and money to help. their impoverished elders. Meanwhile, our long-term care system will be populated by precarious workers. And our economic growth will continue to be hampered because we don’t match workers to jobs and, on the demand side, because of less purchasing power in older communities.

An office of older workers would help empower older workers and ease the transition to full and partial retirement. No government agency currently plays this role. As older workers make up a growing portion of the U.S. labor market, it’s high time we formed an Office of Older Workers to hear from older workers and their employers, to investigate their needs, to coordinate the vast resources of the U.S. government, and modernizing laws on age discrimination and worker training.

Teresa Ghilarducci is professor of economics at the New School for Social Research and director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and senior writer at The New School.

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