Teens, Older Workers Often Compete For Same Job

For the first time since 1948, there are more people older than 65 in the workforce than teenagers. Beaten down retirement portfolios and increased life expectancies mean more older people are working or looking for jobs. Our Planet Money team looks at what older workers and teens bring to the workplace.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And here is a new economic indicator from the folks at NPR's Planet Money: there are now more people of retirement age in the workforce than teenagers. That means more people who remember the start of the DMZ than grew up watching TMZ. And it's the first time it's happened since at least 1948.

Chana Joffe-Walt and Robert Smith with our Planet Money team, take a look at what that means.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: We'd like to begin this story with an announcement: we here at Planet Money, we're hiring. Robert?

ROBERT SMITH: Yes. The formal job title is Human Manifestation of an Economic Trend. We have two finalists for the job. We've got Alice Cherry, a 62-year-old teacher in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Ms. ALICE TERRY (Teacher): I dont think Im going to ever leave the job world. I honestly dont think so. I dont really have an investment portfolio to fall back on. And I enjoy my job.

JOFFE-WALT: And Max Marion Spencer(ph), her 18-year-old grandson with no job, although he's applied for them all.

Mr. MAX MARION SPENCER: Quiznos, Wendy's, McDonald's, Harris Teeter, Food Lion, Dollar General.

JOFFE-WALT: All turned you down?

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah, I would assume so, at this point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOFFE-WALT: And Max noticed something at those interviews: a few older workers who didnt seem to be working that hard.

Mr. SPENCER: I mean Im not going to judge them and say that they shouldnt have those jobs, and stuff like that. But...

SMITH: But you did kind of want to say that you can do it better.

Mr. SPENCER: Without a doubt, I definitely could do it better.

SMITH: Now, if this is starting to sound like one of those battle of the generation stories, it is more complex than that. Some of this is just demographics - the Baby Boomers grew up and are living these long, healthy, active lives.

JOFFE-WALT: Normally that doesnt create too many conflicts because the economy is growing, entry-level jobs are being added.

SMITH: But not today. The economy has lost 7.9 million private sector jobs in just the last of couple years. The baby boomers are sitting at the top of the ladder, and in a recession nobody's climbing up.

So if there's only one job available, who's it going to be: grandmother or grandson?

Ms. TERRY: My people skills are pretty good. What else? I've got wisdom to bring to the table, one would hope.

SMITH: So Max, you're facing some tough competition here. What do you bring to the table that perhaps your grandmother doesnt?

Mr. SPENCER: You can give me a bad job and Ill still probably have to keep it because I can't find any other jobs.

SMITH: So desperation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: Yup, thats definitely one. I mean I know how to use the computer, I guess.

Ms. TERRY: You bring a future with you. If you have a job that you really like, you can commit to it, you know, endlessly.

SMITH: Aww, this decision is going to be tough. I think we need an outside expert.

Mr. IAN SHEPHERDSON (High Frequency Economics): Here I am.

SMITH: Well, you know, a strong English accent is preferred for this job.

Mr. SHEPHERDSON: Right. Well, thats good cause I've got one of those.

JOFFE-WALT: This is Ian Shepherdson with High Frequency Economics. And he says for Max this is not just about a job at McDonald's this summer or next summer. Grandma's right. This really is about his future.

Mr. SHEPHERDSON: Oh, absolutely, because when they do get into that first job, which they may have had to wait two or three years for, they're not at the front of the queue. They're not going to get the cream of jobs, which are going to go to the more recent graduates. And they're going to spend a long time catching up. And for some of them, theyll never catch.

So, you know, through no fault of their own, the people who are graduating now are going to find themselves struggling for a very long time.

SMITH: Alice, if it ever came to the point where you are directly competing with your grandson for a job, would you step aside?

Ms. TERRY: Yeah, of course I would. Yeah. No contest.

JOFFE-WALT: Max, would you step aside?

Mr. SPENCER: I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: I think it really depends on the job. But yeah, I probably would, like if she really needed it. Cause I mean I have plenty of opportunities and stuff like that ahead.

SMITH: The good news is that you both got the job...

Ms. TERRY: Yay...

SMITH: ...as the Planet Money indicator.

Mr. SPENCER: Awesome.

SMITH: The bad news is that it only lasts a few more seconds, the job.

Ms. TERRY: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: So we need you to end this story for us.

Mr. SPENCER: All right.

Ms. TERRY: This might be tough. Closure is hard for us.

Mr. SPENCER: For NPR News, Im Max Spencer.

Ms. TERRY: And Im Alice Terry.

JOFFE-WALT: And Im Chana Joffe-Walt.

SMITH: And Im Robert Smith.

Mr. SPENCER and Ms. TERRY: NPR News, Hillsborough, North Carolina.

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