Economist: senior workers don’t take jobs from young

By Yang Zhou


As older people are staying on at work rather than retiring, some suggest that this trend reduces the job opportunities for younger persons. However, a study administered by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College has found the opposite to be true.

“There is no evidence that shows increased employment by older people is going to hurt younger people in any way,” said Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research and the co-author of Are Aging Baby Boomers Squeezing Young Workers Out of Jobs?


(Source: Center for retirement research)

Munnell said that she and the other researchers who participated in the study analyzed data from 1977 to 2011 from the Current Population Survey, a primary source of labor force statistics for the population of the United States. They found a 1 percent increase in the employment of older workers actually led to an increase in the employment of younger workers by 0.21 percentage points.

“Some employers already have prejudices about older workers, so adding the wrong argument that keeping older workers hurts younger ones can impede the ability of older workers to stay in the labor force,” she said, “Therefore, the lump-of-labor theory is out of date. The theory may sound plausible, but it unsupported by the data.”

The lump-of-labor theory that Munnell mentioned argues that longer-working employees are stealing jobs from the young and new members of the workforce. The theory traces back to the 1850s and states that, if a group enters the labor market and remains in it beyond their normal retirement date, others will be unable to gain employment or will have their hours cut back.

“The main premise of the theory is that there are a constant number of jobs available in the workforce. But the U.S. labor market isn’t a closed box with a fixed number of jobs, where one younger worker directly substitutes for one older worker. The overall labor market is flexible and dynamic, and can absorb workers of all ages who have the skills that are needed by our economy,” Munnell explained.

“If older citizens stay on the job longer, they are not only workers but also consumers. They need goods and services, which creates more job opportunities for the young and make the overall economic pie larger,” she added.

Matthew Rutledge, another economist at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, said, “Older and younger workers have never competed directly for the same positions. Younger workers come into the labor force with a different level of education, and they don’t have work experience. For example, you can’t see old and young workers asking for the same low-wage McDonald’s job.”

Still, many people remain unconvinced. Melissa Galbraith, a controller for a consulting company in Cambridge, thinks older people staying on the job can’t spur new jobs, because companies aren’t investing in creating new positions.

“Older workers don’t necessarily compete directly for jobs with recent college graduates. But the economy can only support so many jobs, and as older workers stay on the jobs longer, it impedes the creation of new jobs, many of which would go to younger workers,” she said.

“I can see the signs of the generational job battle all around me. Jobs once taken by high schoolers now filled by seniors, college graduates who can’t find work anywhere, the resulting dearth of experience of younger applicants,” she added.

Munnell admitted that the findings of the study can be hard for people to understand when they think only of their own workplace. “They just could not get in their heads this dynamism that is involved. You can’t conclude from the experience of a single company to the overall economy. Also, a senior worker with experience might allow a company to hire more junior employees because you have someone who can manage them,” she said.

Whether older workers are taking jobs from young workers is still in disputed, but there is no doubt that a multi-generational workforce can benefit companies.

Tyissha Jones- Horner, the director of senior volunteer program for the City of Boston, has worked with seniors for a long time.

Lisa Lewellyn, 34, works for a property management company as a manager in Boston. Lewellyn manages a small team of six people and feels that there is a particularly good balance of ages within her direct team.  “In terms of relationship management within property, it’s necessary for us to have a mixture of age and gender, because we can ensure we use the right people in the right situations. Mature colleagues can command more respect from older clients, but some clients love working with younger colleagues,” she said.

Noel Dixon, 62, is the oldest person on Lewellyn’s team. He said, “I like working with young people. They always have new ideas and help me keep pace with the trends.”

While at first Lewellyn was nervous about managing a person older than she is, she noted that after a time, she understood that these concerns were unwarranted. Lewellyn said she and her older team members have built up a great working relationship.

“The importance of it is respect and an appreciation that everyone has different advantages when it comes to work, she said.“I began to be aware that older colleagues can have other commitments and feel that I cannot judge anyone’s role by their age.”


About Yang Zhou 4 Articles
Yang Zhou is a multimedia journalism graduate student at Emerson College. She is interested in writing and reporting. And she enjoys listening to other's stories.