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Christopher Lond is 61, with no plans to retire in sight. But it’s not for the reasons you’d expect.
Like many workers his age, the Michigan resident is no longer getting pay raises. Lond’s last pay bump — an incremental, $2-an-hour increase — was more than five years ago, bringing his salary up to $77,000 a year. Since then, his cost of living has only continued to climb, while his wife retired early after facing health issues.
It’s left the couple in a precarious spot.
“It’s hurting my family,” says Lond, who works as a SharePoint solutions designer and K2 Five architect for an automobile company. “It’s hurting my ability to pay bills. There’s all this talk that the economy is doing so well and creating all of these jobs, but nobody is getting raises.”
That’s illustrative of a broader, perplexing question about the U.S. labor market, more than 10 years after the Great Recession. Employers have capped 111 straight months of job gains, but as the unemployment rate moves lower, wage growth has shown little signs of achieving any sustained momentum.
Survey: Half of Americans didn’t get a raise
Cases like Lond’s could be contributing to the picture. Bankrate’s December 2019 Financial Security Poll found that half of American workers didn’t get a pay boost over the past 12 months, whether that meant a raise or accepting a new, higher-paying job. Experts say it’s suppressing the pace of pay gains overall.
Economists also point to another culprit: leftover slack in the labor pool. Month after month of job creation shows that more workers are on the sidelines and available to fill open positions, despite the unemployment rate holding at 3.5 percent, a 50-year low.
Older Americans working for longer amid low participation rates
But older Americans have been leading the charge when it comes to working. Since the early ‘90s, they’ve been forgoing retirement and working longer, largely due to changes in Social Security and pensions and the rising cost of health insurance.
In 1993, participation among those older than 55 — above what the Labor Department deems as the prime working age — bottomed out at 29.4 percent. In 2019, that total had climbed to 40.2 percent, according to the Labor Department.
“We’ve seen this big increase in participation of older ages, despite that it’s still lower for younger ages,” says Rich Johnson, senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “One of the most important trends we’ve seen over the past 25 years is that older people are working longer. That’s pretty much across the board.”
But the older they get, the worse their wages look. Half of younger baby boomers between the ages of 55 and 64 — Lond’s cohort — didn’t get a pay increase over the past 12 months, according to Bankrate’s December survey. Those between the ages of 65 and 73 were even worse off, with nearly three in five not seeing an increase in pay, the worst of any age group, the survey found.
“Over time, older workers have seen a marked decline in wage increases, especially compared to younger people,” says Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at the New School for Social Research.
All of this comes at a time when it’s getting more expensive to age. Prices are rising faster on the typical goods and services purchased by those 62 and older than they are for the items purchased by the general public, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ experimental consumer price index for the elderly.
Also known as CPI-E, the index places more weight on items such as health care and shelter, which are generally more important to seniors.
Large labor supply, weakened pension plans to blame for minimal pay gains
A number of forces are keeping older workers’ wages at bay. One reason is that older Americans’ productivity generally doesn’t increase at as fast of a rate as their younger counterparts, Johnson says. Prime-age workers are constantly cultivating new experiences and learning new skills, meaning each year they become more productive, he says.
Workers also tend to receive their biggest pay raises when they change jobs, yet moving around gets increasingly harder with age. Older Americans are more likely to have already bought a house, suggesting their roots are more firmly planted in their community, Johnson says.
Other experts suggest that an excess labor supply could be holding down their pay gains. Baby boomers peaked at 78.8 million in 1999, and up until 2019, they were the largest living adult generation, according to Pew Research.
“Economists have long seen that the pay increases for boomers has always been a little less than expected, given their skill level and given their occupation,” Ghilarducci says. “Naturally, that’s just the size of the cohort.”
But amid eroding pension plans and rising Medicare premiums, older Americans know they have less of a choice. They’re therefore “desperate to stay in the labor force,” Ghilarducci adds.
Just as students who graduate with a large sum of debt can’t be choosy about where they work, older Americans are more likely to stay in the labor market because they know they need the money, she says. It ultimately reduces their bargaining power.
“Employers watch the labor market and balance carefully how many raises they have to give and how much time off, given the perceived threat of an employee leaving or of not being able to recruit,” Ghilarducci says. “Employers have been able to take advantage of older workers’ fear because they realized they don’t have to pay them more to keep them, and they don’t have to offer them a better job to attract them. It’s certainly a situation that’s advantageous to the employer.”
Lond: ‘I have to be inventive’
For Lond, this special cocktail of circumstances is a part of everyday life.
The developer, who has worked at his current employer for nine years, completed training programs to learn new software skills. He’s managed high-profile projects within the company. He also estimates that he’s submitted three business cases over the past five years to negotiate for higher pay. It’s never proven successful.
“We’re all under the impression that with the economy booming and all of these new jobs happening, that it would help put the employee in a position of more strength or negotiating power,” Lond says. “So far, that hasn’t come to fruition.”
He’s had phone calls with other potential employers, but uprooting his home isn’t financially or physically viable, given his wife’s medical needs. As a result, he joined the gig economy and took on a second job with the mobile freelance handy-work app TaskRabbit.
“My budget is tight, with my wife not working and not getting a raise,” he says. “I have to be inventive. Things don’t happen when you just sit on your butt.”
Most of it has to do with his age, he says. Younger workers come in with more training and knowledge about new programs, which is especially valuable in a field as ever-changing as technology.
Lond estimates that the median salary at his company is $85,000 a year.
“In their minds, they could possibly be saying, ‘He’s old. He’s not going to go anywhere. He doesn’t have the skills that the industry is looking for,’” Lond says. “There’s a silent discrimination of older people. Older Americans know their skill sets are not as high, so employers don’t have to pay them better wages. The employer also knows they probably won’t leave because they are not willing to gamble at their age.”
The lack of pay raises has made it hard for Lond to get ahead with his retirement savings. He was never paid enough to sock much away, and during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, he had to cash in to pay bills during a spell of unemployment.
“I was never able to recover from that,” Lond says.
Tips for marketing yourself, increasing your bargaining power
Amid slow productivity growth, all-time low U.S. birth rates and decreased immigration, older Americans mean a lot to economic growth when they continue to work, Johnson says.
“It’s really older people who are propelling growth in the labor force,” he says. “An economist would think that wages are set at a level necessary to get people into the labor force. One of the surprises of the labor market in recent years has been that, while unemployment has dropped precipitously, we haven’t seen a dramatic increase in wages.”
In some instances, there is a silver lining, Johnson says. Older Americans make more money on average than younger people, despite the fact that their wage growth has become stagnant. Most of their children are also grown and out of the house, meaning they don’t have to financially support them.
Older Americans looking to increase their opportunities and bargaining power should use every networking contact in their arsenal, Johnson says. Older Americans have a wealth of experience and know how the work is done.
Emphasizing their institutional knowledge and mentorship abilities to help train new talent can also help their employers see more value in them, he says.
“Older people have this lifetime of experience and a lifetime of networks and contacts that they’ve built up,” he says. “Leveraging that can help you find a job.”
Other cures to the problem might have to come from legislation, Ghilarducci says. Unions can put pressure on age discrimination law, and if lawmakers increase the availability of long-term care insurance and Social Security, older workers may feel like they have “a better fallback position,” she says.
Even if older Americans don’t formally unionize, they should still band together, she says. That way, they can monitor certain trends in their workplace, such as how much extra they work.
Lond: ‘I am basically stuck’
Lond has already deduced a course of action. He plans to work well into his 70s and will eventually downsize for extra cash.
“Our home will provide some money, but my wife and I are destined to live on Social Security,” he says.
He says he enjoys his job and likes where he works. Still, it’s hard not to “feel marginalized and taken advantage of.” He doesn’t have much of a choice.
“At my age, it is difficult to find work,” Lond says. “Employers want people who can jump in and make an immediate impact, and I can’t say I don’t blame them. I am basically stuck where I am.”