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Why some older workers fared worse during Covid-19 than the Great Recession

Kelvin Murray | Getty Images

It’s no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic has hurt workers of all ages.

Yet when it comes to older workers — those ages 50 to 62 and up — some may have fared worse than they did during the Great Recession, according to recent research from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Just how older workers were affected depends on their age cohort, and whether they are ages 50 to 61 or 62 and up, according to the analysis of data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.

For those ages 50 to 61, the data shows that Covid-19 was harder on low earners than high earners.

Nineteen percent of those in the lowest earnings tercile were no longer working in 2020 compared to one year earlier, the data reveals. In comparison, in 2009 during the Great Recession, 17% of people in that category were no longer working.

Meanwhile, 9% of the highest earnings tercile were no longer working in 2020, compared to 11% in 2009.

“The big thing that stands out about any recession, including the Covid recession, is just the extent to which it hurts lower income people more,” said Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, research fellow at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Despite the negative consequences for people in this age cohort, there was not a noticeable increase in how many consider themselves to be retired. Part of that may be due to the fact that they are not yet 62, and thus unable to claim Social Security retirement benefits.

For those ages 62 and up, it’s a different story.

Lower earners in that age cohort were still more likely to be not working. Yet when compared to the Great Recession, the unemployment rate was about the same, 38% in 2020 versus 37% in 2009.

However, high earners ages 62 and up were more likely to be unemployed. In 2020, 22% of those in the highest earnings quartile were no longer working compared to a year earlier, versus 18% who fell into that category in 2009 during the Great Recession.

High earners retired at a greater clip during Covid-19 than in the Great Recession. In 2020, 15% of that cohort were retired a year after working, versus 10% in 2009. Yet the rate at which lower earners retired stayed about the same, 26% in 2020 versus 25% in 2009.

The best thing you can do to have a retirement where you have a high income is to delay claiming Social Security.
Geoffrey Sanzenbacher
research fellow at Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research

The results compare data from December 2020 to December 2019. There would likely have been a more dramatic difference in unemployment rates had the data measured for earlier months in 2020, Sanzenbacher said.

Admittedly, the health risks tied to Covid-19 could have prompted some employers to encourage workers to retire.

“From the data, we can’t really tell whether it’s pure choice on the part of the employee or whether it’s a joint decision of some kind,” Sanzenbacher said.

As the pandemic wears on far longer than many expected, some workers who at first identified as unemployed may now say they are retired.

That decision could also prompt them to claim Social Security benefits early, which is a concern, Sanzenbacher said.

Generally, if you claim at 62, the earliest age at which workers are generally eligible, you take permanently reduced benefits. Ideally, workers will wait until full retirement age to get 100% of their benefits, or up to age 70 to get enhanced benefits by waiting to claim.

“The best thing you can do to have a retirement where you have a high income is to delay claiming Social Security,” Sanzenbacher said.

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