Seventy may be the new sixty, eighty may be the new seventy, but 85 is still pretty old to work in America. Yet, in some ways, it is the era of the very-old-worker in America.
Overall, 255,000 Americans, 85-years-old and over, were working over the past 12 months. That’s 4.4 percent of Americans that age, up from 2.6 percent in 2006, before the recession. It’s the highest number on record.
They’re doing all sorts of jobs – crossing guards, farmers and ranchers, even truckers, as my colleague Heather Long revealed in a front-page story last week. Indeed, there are between 1,000 and 3,000 U.S. truckers age 85 or older, based on 2016 Census Bureau figures. Their ranks have roughly doubled since the Great Recession.
America’s aging workforce has defined the post-Great Recession labor market. Baby boomers and their parents are working longer as life expectancies grow, retirement plans shrink, education levels rise and work becomes less physically demanding. Labor Department figures show that at every year of age above 55, U.S. residents are working or looking for work at the highest rates on record.
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At the lower end of the age curve, the opposite holds true. Workers age 30 and younger are staying on the sidelines at rates not seen since the 1960s and ’70s, when women weren’t yet entering the workforce at the level they are today.
Folks who are still working at age 85 or above are, as you might guess, unusual. They hold very different jobs from their younger peers and rivals even as they don’t vary significantly by race, ethnicity or geography.
Most of the oldest workers are concentrated in just 26 of the 455 occupations tracked by the Census Bureau data. Those same 26 occupations are home to less than a third of the total workforce.
Workers age 85 and older are more common in less physical industries, such as management and sales, than they are in demanding ones such as manufacturing and construction.
Nobody questions whether or not older workers can make a difference. After all, some of America’s most prominent workers are around 85. The oldest Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is 85 and counting. Rupert Murdoch is 87 on the dot. So are George Soros, Warren Buffett and Toni Morrison.
For a more nuanced picture, we can consider the specific occupations in which any given worker is likeliest to be in the 85-plus group. To enable detailed analysis on such a small population, we aggregated census data from 2001 to 2016.
Crossing guards are relatively likely to be age 85 or above. The same goes for musicians, anyone who works in a funeral home, and product demonstrators like those you might find at a warehouse club store.
But that chart only tells half the story. Few people of any age get the opportunity to work as crossing guards, funeral directors or musicians. So, while they may be elder-friendly jobs, they’re not the top jobs for older people.
By sheer numbers, the top job among the 85-plus-year-olds is farmers and ranchers. It’s also the one in which the distribution of older workers is most different from the distribution of the rest of the population. That category, which is distinct from farm laborers, houses 3.5 percent of the oldest workers – but just 0.5 percent of the rest of the population.
Generational shifts drive much of the split. When today’s oldest workers were entering the labor force, farmers and ranchers had far more options than computer scientists did, and that’s shaped their professional choices today, seven decades down the line.
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The Washington Post’s Heather Long contributed to this story.