Jobs Report Highlights Missing Senior Workers : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money Sure, some seniors took the pandemic as an opportunity to ride an RV into the sunset, but there's a darker story unfolding in today's jobs report. Today's show looks at the challenges many older worker can face as they try to reenter the workforce.

Jobs Friday: Where are all the older workers?

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

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SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:

It's Jobs Friday, and there was a lot of speculation about what the numbers would show this month, maybe even some high hopes. But the economy added only 194,000 jobs in September. That's less than in August. And to be honest, the jobs report isn't looking so great. We've heard this before on THE INDICATOR.

TERESA GHILARDUCCI: The jobs report looks a little meh.

HERSHIPS: Meh - Teresa Ghilarducci is a labor economist at the New School for Social Research, and I explained to her the special Jobs Friday tradition we have here on THE INDICATOR. If it's good news, we play an air horn.

GHILARDUCCI: (Laughter).

HERSHIPS: I'm guessing this is not an air horn kind of day.

GHILARDUCCI: No. No, it's not an air horn. I wouldn't do that.

HERSHIPS: I called Teresa because she is especially focused on one group of workers - older workers. And when you look at this morning's numbers, there's this weird mystery afoot. There's so many job openings, but at the same time, there are a million and a half older workers who are unemployed, the kind Teresa likes to study.

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HERSHIPS: I'm Sally Herships in for Stacey Vanek Smith. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Today on the show, the great, gray mystery. When there are so many jobs, why are so many older workers unemployed?

I had so many questions for Teresa about why so many older workers are unemployed at a time when there's so many job openings. But one of the first things I asked her was this really common assumption I've heard tossed around a lot lately - the idea that there is a gray wave of retirees, older people who are quitting their jobs because they're afraid of catching COVID.

GHILARDUCCI: I thought you were going to go there. So I don't think a lot of older workers are having the trouble they're having in the, you know, labor market because they're afraid of getting the virus anymore than anybody else. And most of the older workers that we see would don a hazmat suit to go back to work because they have no other source of income.

HERSHIPS: Teresa says this mismatch is not about a gray wave of retirees who are choosing to leave work, buying condos on golf courses in Fort Lauderdale or driving their RVs off into the sunset. One quarter of Americans have no retirement savings, so if you're older, especially, you've got to keep working. But it still doesn't answer the question - why the mismatch?

I'm in New York City. There are all these businesses with help wanted signs. Why the mismatch? Where is that happening?

GHILARDUCCI: Well, I feel that a lot of employers use the pandemic as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get rid of older workers that they didn't want in the first place.

HERSHIPS: This is some dark stuff. Teresa says it's ageism, and the data backs it up. According to AARP, two-thirds of all workers in their mid-40s through their mid-70s say they have seen or experienced age discrimination at work.

GHILARDUCCI: Older workers' health insurance costs a lot more than younger workers. So even though there's a lot of help wanted signs, they're not wanting just to hire anybody.

HERSHIPS: But things get worse. Teresa says the problems today's older workers are facing started a long time before the pandemic.

GHILARDUCCI: And may I remind you that the Academy Awards awarded a movie as a best picture just this year about the older workers who lost their jobs in the 2008 recession?

HERSHIPS: She's talking about "Nomadland." Frances McDormand is the lead actress. She plays a woman in her 60s who loses everything during the recession.

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FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Fern) My husband worked at the USG mine in Empire. I was a substitute teacher.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It is a tough time right now. You may want to consider early retirement.

MCDORMAND: (As Fern) I need work. I like work.

HERSHIPS: Emma Glaspie (ph) is one of those older workers having a tough time right now. She's 70. She lives in the Bronx. And she's been out of work since the beginning of the pandemic, when she lost a part-time job taking care of kids. She has Social Security and some money from a 401(k), but she says it's been hard getting used to being on this new fixed income.

EMMA GLASPIE: It's like you been rich. And, you know, you have had everything. And you're used to having everything, and you never looked at - you know, the price never bothered you. But now when I go in the store now, it's basically - I've got to really think about it. I've got to really think about my bills.

HERSHIPS: Emma says the money from her old part-time job helped her cover her phone bill or just repair stuff around the house.

GLASPIE: Now I'm just in that position now that I'm just not used to coming down off the ladder and going down at the bottom, you know? I'm just, you know, trying to wrap my head around that.

HERSHIPS: And this is where we go back to this problem of age discrimination. One study published in the Journal of Political Economy found robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring, especially against older women and especially against women near retirement age.

GHILARDUCCI: The places where we see a lot of older workers are in, it turns out to be, the occupations that are the - have the largest employment growth. Home and personal health workers - these are sort of older workers taking care of even older people. We see truck drivers and janitors being a lot older than the average workforce.

HERSHIPS: And yeah, can we just talk about the home health aides for a second? - because that's really surprising. It was like, wait a minute. I thought older people were the people who needed the home health aides (laughter).

GHILARDUCCI: Yeah (laughter). As a labor economist, I've seen when a sector really increases very quickly, the employers will tend to bring in marginal workers - you know, workers that are kind of the edges of the core labor force. And older women are on the periphery of the core labor force.

HERSHIPS: The market for home health aides is exploding. A lot of times, you only need a high school diploma. There's not much job training required, which means the barrier to entry is low. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage is $13.02 an hour, and that can lead to another problem. Once you have a low-paying, low-skill job, it can be really hard to switch.

GHILARDUCCI: So it's harder to have people cross over from their truck-driving job, their caregiving jobs or other places where you see a lot more older workers.

HERSHIPS: And this is where we come back to ageism again. According to AARP, screening algorithms will automatically throw out resumes that look old. The problem is so bad, there are all these articles with tips on AARP's website for how to restructure your resume so you don't look so old, like removing older dates. And this isn't just a problem for individual senior citizens. When they're unemployed, the economy misses out on their labor and spending, so this could be a real problem for areas of the country that have aging populations like Arizona or West Virginia.

This is very sad. Is there any happy news?

GHILARDUCCI: Yes, there is very happy news about older workers. Older workers are becoming more and more educated. And so many older workers, especially compared to 30 years ago, are staying in jobs that they like.

HERSHIPS: And older workers are also telling researchers that they get meaning from their work, and lots of older workers are doing really well. Look at the White House. We've got the president and Anthony Fauci. And according to Harvard Business Review, knowledge and expertise - the main predictors of job performance - keep increasing even beyond the age of 80, so they say you should absolutely hire older workers. And to finish off with the jobs report, Teresa says there is one cheerful little chart in her opinion.

GHILARDUCCI: I love these - what I call the take-this-job-and-shove-it number. That's my favorite indicator is actually in Table A11, and that shows me how many people among the unemployed are job-leavers.

HERSHIPS: Teresa says that is a little indication of bargaining power among workers young and old, and that number is up just a little bit more than last month.

Got it - yeah, take this job and shove it.

GHILARDUCCI: Shove it, yeah. Yeah, I thought you might like that one.

HERSHIPS: And maybe that bargaining power will help older workers like Emma Glaspie. She's one of the workers who gets a lot of satisfaction from doing her job.

GLASPIE: I loved my job that I had before. I loved that job. I love the kids. I liked the interacting with them. I loved it. I just didn't do it for the money. I did it because I liked the job.

HERSHIPS: So maybe give Emma a call.

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HERSHIPS: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Julia Ritchey with help from Josh Newell. It was fact-checked by Michael He. The show is edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.

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