June 2020

A teacher and student

COVID: The Challenge for Older Workers

In anticipation of rambunctious children returning to the classroom in the fall, older teachers are sounding alarms about how challenging it will be to make the schools safe for themselves, as well as the children and families.

Their fears about going back to work in a pandemic are shared by older workers around the country with chronic conditions, which increase the mortality rate for people who contract COVID-19.

Workers who cannot work remotleyMore than half of U.S. workers who are between ages 55 and 64 are in jobs that can’t be done remotely, a new study estimates. Their flexibility to work at home isn’t much different than younger adults.

But older Americans who are weighing whether to return to work face a dilemma that is of less concern to young, healthy workers.

The older workers must choose between “health risks – returning to work before the virus is under control – or economic risks – delaying work until the environment is safe, which may exhaust their resources,” concluded researchers at the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog.

Jobs that can’t be performed at home were identified in the study by 14 specific tasks, ranging from interacting with the public and handling machinery to rarely using email and standing or walking for most of the workday.

By linking information about jobs to individuals in a national survey, the researchers reported on the ability to work remotely based on the characteristics of the workers themselves. They found that women, who often gravitate to jobs that give them more flexibility or the ability to work part-time, are more likely to be in jobs they can do at home – think about travel agents (85 percent are women) and freelance writers (67 percent).

The analysis also confirmed something the media have reported anecdotally: working remotely is a perk of being a well-paid professional. About six in 10 workers in the highest earnings bracket can do their jobs at home, compared with just over three out of 10 workers in the lowest two earnings brackets. …Learn More

Art of people at a job interview

Virus Complicates Boomers’ Job Searches

As laid-off baby boomers venture into the job market in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they may sense it will be tough to find a position because, well, they’re too old.

New research indicates this suspicion is spot-on.

Discrimination is notoriously difficult to corroborate in academic studies. But researchers in Belgium, using a well-designed experiment conducted prior to the pandemic, found that company hiring managers working in 30 developed countries, including the United States, were much less likely to ask older job applicants to even come in for an interview.

The reason? They were perceived as having “lower technological skill, flexibility, and trainability levels,” the study concluded.

But there’s a big disconnect between this evidence of discrimination and a different report, based on a 2019 telephone survey, that employers view workers over age 55 as being at least – and sometimes more – productive than their younger colleagues. This survey also found that older workers are perceived more positively if the hiring manager is older. The findings provide some hope that, as the population ages, baby boomers who want to continue their careers may be able to do so.

However, even the authors of this study acknowledge two issues facing boomers. First, even when employers say they have positive perceptions of older workers, this posture “does not necessarily correspond with employer behavior.”

Second, given older workers’ underlying health conditions, COVID-19 is a wild card that could “adversely affect” their job prospects.

In any case, older job hunters will inevitably encounter some recruiters who will hold age against them. To overcome preconceived notions about older workers, the study of discriminatory recruiters provided some practical tips, based on the findings. …Learn More

Woman with mental health problems

Recessions Hit Depressed Workers Hard

Anyone who’s suffered through depression knows it can be difficult to get out of bed, much less find the energy to go to work. Mental illness has been on the rise, and depression and myriad other symptoms get in the way of being a productive employee.

So it’s not surprising that men and women with mental illness are much less likely to be employed than people who have no symptoms. But the problem gets worse in a recession.

In 2008, the first year of the Great Recession, the economy slowed sharply as 2.6 million workers lost their jobs. During that time, people who suffered from mental illness left the labor force at a much faster pace than everyone else, according to a new study from the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

The researchers compared average labor force participation, as reported in the National Health Interview Survey, for three periods. Two periods of consistent economic growth bracketed a period that included the onset of the Great Recession: 1997-1999, 2006-2008, and 2015-2017.

Labor force participation for people with no mental illness dipped less than 1 percent between the late 1990s and the period that included the recession. By 2015-2017, roughly three out of four of them were still in the labor force – only slightly below pre-recession levels.

Contrast this relative stability to large declines in activity for people with mental illness – the more severe the condition, the steeper the drop. Participation fell 17 percent among people with the most severe forms of mental illness between the late 1990s and the period that included the recession. By 2015-2017, only 38 percent of them remained in the labor force – well below pre-recession levels. …Learn More

Recession Slams Millennials – Again

Woman waving to a friend

Several young adults in my life have been derailed by the COVID-19 recession.

A few examples. My daughter-in-law just finished her graduate degree in occupational therapy and sailed through her certification only to be met by a stalled job market. A friend’s daughter, fresh out of nursing school, has already been turned down for one job. My nephew, a late bloomer who had finally snared a job making jewelry for a major retailer, was laid off and is floundering again.

Student loans, the Great Recession, and now a pandemic – Millennials can’t seem to catch a break.

Going into this pandemic, people in their 20s and 30s already had lower wages, more student debt, and less wealth than previous generations at the same age. This recession arrives at a critical time when Millennials were trying to catch up, build careers and strive for financial goals.

For the youngest ones, this is their first recession. But the downturn is the second blow for older Millennials, many of whom had the bad luck of entering the job market in the midst of the Great Recession a decade ago.

Does this double jeopardy put them in danger of becoming “a lost generation”? Millennials’ predicament prompted the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis to ask this question in a new report on their finances.

The COVID-19 recession, the report said, “could upend many of their lives.”

The situation is far from hopeless, of course – they have several decades to make up for this rough patch! There’s no reason they can’t overcome the setbacks with some pluck and determination.

But this will require much more effort to pull off amid the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression. The Federal Reserve estimates more than 5.5 million Millennials have become unemployed this year – African-Americans bore a disproportionate share of the layoffs.

Young adults were over-represented in the food service, hospitality, and leisure industries slammed by state shutdowns to control the pandemic. And as the recession plays out, Millennials, with their shorter tenures in the labor market, will continue to be vulnerable to layoffs.

Don’t forget about Generation Z either. The recession will be a tough period for its oldest members, who are just graduating from college and haven’t built up their resumés. They may be less appealing job candidates when so many experienced people are eager to work and willing to compromise on pay at a time of sky-high unemployment. …Learn More

Crowd of people

Readers Lament Decline in Boomer Health

The share of people in their late 50s with the second most severe form of obesity has tripled since the early 1990s. This grim fact, featured in a recent Squared Away article, clarifies COVID-19’s danger to older Americans.

The article, “Our Parents Were Healthier at Ages 54-60,” summarized research establishing that baby boomers are less healthy than their parents’ generation due to several conditions related to obesity, including diabetes, pain levels, and difficulty performing daily activities. The poorest Americans’ health deteriorated the fastest – and COVID-19 is preying on them.

“This decline in markers of metabolic health seems to correlate with increased vulnerability to the pandemic,” wrote one reader, Dan O’Brien, who was among several who commented on recent health-related blogs.

That’s what happened during the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009. Hospitalizations – and possibly death rates – were tied to obesity in adults with multiple health conditions, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“The vast majority of [COVID-19 patients] who reach the ICU suffer from comorbidities. My takeaway is that metabolic dysfunction is tied to immune-system failure in ways we don’t yet understand,” O’Brien said.

Another reader, Lorraine Porto, advocated a simple way for people to keep their weight in check: walk. An elderly woman she knows “walked miles every week.” Porto believes this healthy habit saved the woman’s life when she broke her hip in her 80s and was “walking around, sprightly as ever, less than two months later.” The woman lived into her 90s, Porto said.

A second health-related blog popular with readers looked at the unexpected costs of treating medical conditions that become more common in old age.

Older workers and retirees who try to anticipate their future medical expenses might feel a bit like they’re throwing a dart at a dartboard. The researchers did the work for them in a study described in the blog, “Unexpected Retirement Costs Can be Big.” …Learn More

Photo of a leaky pipe

401ks are a Source of Cash in Pandemic

The U.S. retirement savings system has always been a little leaky. But the leaks seem to be getting bigger.

Some Americans are eyeing withdrawals from their 401(k) plans as the best of a few bad options for paying their rent or solving other cash-flow problems.

As of May 8, 1.5 percent of retirement plan participants had taken some money out of their 401(k) plans under new federal legislation permitting penalty-free withdrawals, The Wall Street Journal reported. An April survey by the non-profit Transamerica Institute put the number of savers responding to the pandemic much higher – about one in five.

Chart of adults most likely to use 401ks as cashBut the data included people who took out loans from their 401(k)s, in addition to withdrawals from 401(k)s and IRAs. Further, Transamerica reported not only on what people have already done but what they say they plan to do. Younger workers and men were the most likely to resort to this desperation move.

Prior to the pandemic, many workers were already behind on their retirement savings and still had not fully recovered from the recession a decade ago.

The current economic downturn will only set them back further as the layoffs, reduced hours and sales commissions derail or curtail their efforts to save. Employers having to lay off workers are also conserving cash by suspending their matching contributions to their employees’ 401(k)s.

“The negative economic effects of the pandemic are further threatening retirement savings and security,” said Catherine Collinson, chief executive of the Transamerica Institute, a partner of the Center for Retirement Research, which funds this blog.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed in March made it easier to withdraw money by waiving the standard 20 percent income tax withholding and 10 percent penalty, which usually applies to people under age 59½. But one estimate made prior to the pandemic shows this is a costly strategy: prematurely taking money out of 401(k)s and IRAs reduces the average amount of money available for retirement by about one-fourth.

People who still have jobs are also saving less. One in five workers have reduced their 401(k) contributions, a Magnify Money survey shows. The informal poll isn’t representative of the population but is certainly an indication of the financial strain the pandemic is putting on workers.

Employers are pulling back too. At last count, some four dozen companies reeling from a drop in revenue – including big names like AutoNation, Best Buy, Hilton Grand Vacations, and Tripadvisor – are temporarily halting their matching contributions, according to a list compiled by the Center for Retirement Research. …Learn More

Puzzle of heads

Disability Applications Spike in Recession

During the Great Recession, the record numbers of Americans who applied for disability included many people who lost their jobs – and it might happen again as the COVID-19 recession plays out.

A 2018 study estimated that 1 million people applied who would not have done so if there hadn’t been a recession. By October 2009, as the jobless rate was peaking, the additional applicants increased the total applications to the U.S. Social Security Administration by 16.5 percent.

The average age of these applicants was 53, and they tended to have impairments that were musculoskeletal or cognitive in nature. Because these impairments are less severe, they were more likely to be denied benefits, often resulting in an appeal.

In contrast, the people who would’ve sought disability benefits even in a strong economy tended to have serious medical conditions such as Crohn’s or chronic kidney disease that usually qualify them automatically under the disability program’s vetting system.

Ultimately, among the applicants who applied in response to the recession, 42 percent were awarded benefits, according to the study funded by the Social Security Administration and based on an analysis of the agency’s disability records.

When they did receive benefits, they were more often awarded on the basis of having a functional limitation and no transferable skills. As a result, many people who used to work were nevertheless approved for benefits, because their options for transferring their skills from their old job to a new job were limited.

Adding so many people to the disability system carried a steep price in terms of an increase in administrative and benefit costs. But the formerly productive workers also paid a price.

“Once people qualify” for disability benefits, the researchers said, “they rarely re-enter the labor force.” …Learn More