Dramatic demographic changes, corporate labor cost cutting and an unexpected increase in retirements by older workers are opening millions of jobs to people in the 65-plus age bracket.
But declining health and income are still enormous problems for most older workers, and even the news that they have more job openings than ever is a mixed blessing.
Often the 65-plusers want part-time or temporary jobs. But as the executive director of the National Assn. of Working Women, Karen Nussbaum, points out, when older workers seek such jobs, they are open to exploitation by employers who get experienced workers cheaply without making any long-term obligations.
Laws prohibiting age discrimination do help somewhat. But legislation is needed to make sure that part-time and temporary jobs provide fringe benefits and wages comparable to those for similar permanent full-time jobs.
Federal law was changed this year to prohibit employers from firing workers just because they have reached the age of 70. (There never has been an age cap in California's age discrimination law.)
Also, starting next year, federal law will require employers to continue giving pension credits to workers who stay on the job after age 65.
Federal and state anti-discrimination laws have been a boon to some older workers, as in the unusual case of locomotive engineer Stephen Mott of Fresno, who was fired by Amtrak on his 70th birthday. Even his union contract permitted the company's action on the theory that he is not as competent at 70 as he was the year before.
But last week, California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing mediated an agreement among Mott, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Amtrak. Everyone agreed--at least officially--that competence should be measured by ability, not age.
Mott is back in the engine cab, as he had been for 40 years, although he must be retested for his skills and physical ability every 90 days.
Mott, though, isn't typical of older workers, most of whom want to retire when they hit 65.
Ironically, nearly a decade ago, employers fought a bill that prohibited mandatory retirement before the age of 70.
Corporate executives told Congress that they worried that millions of workers, like Mott, would refuse to retire at 65 if Congress passed such a law.
The bill, they said, would boost the jobless rate among younger workers and clutter firms with "dead wood" employees who would earn more money than their younger counterparts simply because of seniority.
It didn't turn out that way.
More older workers are retiring these days than before the 1978 age discrimination law was passed. Today, only 10.9% of those 65 and over are in the labor force, compared to 13% before the 1978 law.
At the same time, the number of people in the over-65 crowd is growing rapidly, up 13% since 1980. But the number of young workers is on the decline: Since 1980, their ranks have dwindled by 12%.
One result of this major demographic change is that employers are looking for older workers, and most of the 65-plusers who want jobs can find them, even if they are unattractive positions.
While the overall jobless rate for the nation has dropped from about 7% in 1978 to 5.8% now, the jobless rate for those 65 and older has been cut in half, down to 2.5%.
Before passage of the 1978 law, employers hired mostly young people and immigrants for jobs that required few skills and a willingness to work part-time at odd hours for relatively low pay.
Such jobs were primarily in the still rapidly growing service sector, including convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, hotels, hospitals, retailing and financial institutions.
Older workers were seldom hired for the more menial jobs.
When the supply of young workers was plentiful, employers could skim the cream of that crop to get the kind of unskilled, low-paid workers they needed. Employers found enough youngsters who were polite, literate and had good judgment and a work ethic.
But now, says Audrey Freedman, a labor economist with the Conference Board, a research organization based in New York: "It is hard to find enough younger workers who can say good morning gracefully, write a name correctly or make an appointment accurately, so employers are turning to older workers."
She might have correctly added that employers are turning to older workers because so many of them are trying to live on inadequate retirement incomes and, however reluctant, are willing to take those low-paid, part-time temporary jobs.
The decline in the number of young people also means that there will be fewer college graduates coming along to fill the need for skilled workers. That means an increased demand for the experience and training of older workers.
Employers want full-time, experienced workers for jobs requiring skill and education. Until the nation's demographics began to change, workers at age 65 were not in demand because younger qualified people were available--and for lower pay.