This article contains a correction.
Data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides fresh evidence that the labor market remains resilient—despite many uncertainties—and job gains have been broad-based across all segments of the workforce. “Older women”—namely, those aged 55 and older—stand out for having experienced larger drops in employment during the height of the pandemic, as compared with younger women or men of any age. But these same women are now benefiting from robust job growth, thanks in part to the Biden administration’s economic investments. Their labor force engagement has rebounded from pandemic lows and is near historic highs.
This fact sheet draws on data from the BLS Current Population Survey and the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey to paint a picture of how older women are faring in the labor market a little more than three years out from the start of the pandemic.
1. Over the past two decades, older women have become a large and growing share of the labor force
More than 1 in 10 workers today is a woman aged 55 or older. Older women have steadily grown to 10.6 percent of the labor force in April 2023—from a 6.9 percent share two decades prior—as more older women remained in or joined the labor force and as the population overall has grown older.1 Between April 2003 and April 2023, the labor force participation rate among women aged 55 to 64 climbed to 59.6 percent from 56.6 percent and the rate for women over the age of 65 grew to 16.0 percent from 10.6 percent.2 By comparison, labor force participation rates for so-called “prime working age”3 women—those 25 to 54 years old—although higher, grew less than 1 percentage point over this same period (to 77.5 percent from 76.1 percent) and the rates for prime working age men actually fell, though gender gaps in participation remain.4
Gains in older women’s labor force participation reflect important demographic trends, including growth in the size of the older population as well as increasing educational attainment among women, which tends to strengthen labor force attachment.5 While this fact sheet does not attempt to decompose the effect of group participation controlling for these factors, others have, and they found that, since 2000, older adults—and older women in particular—made larger contributions to the overall participation rate.6 But, that trend did not hold for all groups across different baselines; older women of color were driving increases among this group, after accounting for major revisions in the 2020 census.7
Labor force participation is important to women’s economic security as they age. Women who can maintain attachment to the labor force at older ages face lower risks of experiencing poverty and material hardships.8 There are myriad reasons why: Earnings from work not only cover current consumption but they also boost Social Security benefits and may also boost retirement savings. Earnings from work may allow women to wait longer before claiming Social Security benefits, which increases monthly benefits even more.9 It is important to note that labor force attachment is not a sufficient solution to ensure older women’s economic security; older women face structural disadvantages and discrimination rooted in ageism, ableism, sexism, and racism—and occupational segregation results in many older women being steered into poor quality jobs. 10
More on occupation segregation:
2. Older women’s labor market engagement suffered during the pandemic but is recovering thanks to Biden administration policies
The pandemic threatened to derail the prior employment gains of older women; employment among women aged 55 and over fell by 3 million jobs in the first months of the pandemic, a 17 percent decline.11 The most common occupations among older women workers prior to 2020 were disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The top five occupations in 2016 for women over the age of 62 were teachers, secretaries, personal care aides, registered nurses, and child care workers. 12 As a result, many older women lost jobs as schools, daycares, and medical offices closed. Simultaneously, fears of contracting COVID-19 led many older, higher-risk workers to make the difficult choice to withdraw from the labor market.13 Younger workers’ employment was affected to a lesser degree, falling 15.1 percent for women aged 25 to 54; 13.1 percent for men aged 55 and older; and 12.1 percent for men aged 25 to 54 between February and April 2020.14
Since then, the U.S. economy has experienced a strong and equitable recovery, thanks to the targeted response by the Biden administration. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) expanded unemployment insurance benefits and, for the first time ever, expanded access to the earned income tax credit for childless workers aged 65 and older, helping to create the foundations for today’s strong economy.15 Both ARPA and the CARES Act boosted funding for programs important to the labor force attachment of older women who are caregivers including home- and community-based services and the National Family Caregiver Support Program.16 The Biden administration’s successful vaccine rollout was especially important to older Americans who faced greater health risks, enabling them to safely reenter the workforce.17
Labor force participation rates for older women have rebounded faster than their male peers, though gender gaps remain. While there is still some recovery left to make, some groups have surpassed or met their 2019 highs in labor force participation, including women of prime working age; women aged 55 to 64; and women aged 65 to 69. As the workforce continues to age, these women will continue to make large contributions to the labor force as they move up the age distribution.
3. Workforce projections point to continued growth in older women’s employment
The BLS projects that the ranks of older women in the workforce will continue to grow in importance between 2020 and 2030, with more than 60 percent of growth in the labor force coming from workers aged 65 and over—an age group commonly labeled “retirement age.”18 This represents a gain of 5.5 million individuals aged 65 and over in the workforce and a stunning reversal of past trends: Before 2010, almost all growth in the U.S. labor force was driven by those aged 25 to 64.19
Looking at the breakdown by gender and age, women over the age of 55 will grow from the 2023 average (through March) of 10.6 percent of the labor force to 11.7 percent by 2031. Put another way, that’s an additional 2.2 million women in the labor force who will be over the age of 55. The number of men in the labor force for the same age group will only grow by 1.1 million over the same period. For women over the age of 55, more than half of that growth will occur in the group of women aged 65 to 74 by 2031. While it is true that this is largely a product of population aging, there are additional factors that contribute to this—including the fact that women in the cohort preparing to age into this group will be some of the most educated—and are generally healthier than the cohorts before them. Clearly, future economic growth will hinge on the contributions of older working women.
4. Despite employment gains, older women experience larger gender wage gaps
The gender wage gap is pervasive, persistent, and it is larger for older women who disproportionately work in more occupationally segregated professions. In addition, there are generational divides in access to education that contribute to this gap, as discussed earlier. Even restricting this analysis solely to those working full time, the gap between what women earn—compared with men of similar ages—is large and grows with age.20 Women aged 55 and older experience the widest gender pay gaps, whether on an absolute or relative basis. Median usual weekly earnings for women aged 55 and older were $1,009 in the first quarter of 2023 compared to $1,343 for older men.* In other words, older women working full-time earned just 75 cents for each dollar earned by full-time older men. 21 By comparison, the youngest women—those aged 16 to 24—earned 92 cents, and “prime working age” women earned 85 cents, for each dollar earned by men of the same ages.22
Gender wage gaps vary by race and ethnicity and are largest for older African American women and Latinas, reflecting multiple, intersecting discrimination and systemic bias in the labor market. Black women aged 55 and older working full time earn just 62 cents for each dollar earned by older white men.23 For older Latinas, the gap is even larger—they earn just 55 cents on the dollar—compared to older white men.24 While this analysis makes a comparison to white men of any ethnic origin, gender and racial and ethnic wage gaps are even larger when compared to white, non-Hispanic men.
More on the gender wage gap:
5. Older women face unique challenges in maintaining labor force attachment
When older women exit the labor market, it is often not a voluntary, planned retirement. Rather, unexpected factors such as layoffs, health concerns, and caregiving responsibilities can come into play. Majorities of retired Black women (55 percent) and Hispanic women (60 percent) report that they stopped working earlier than planned compared to less than half (46 percent) of workers overall, with health considerations a driving factor.25 Unplanned workforce exits elevate the risk that women—particularly women of color—will have insufficient financial resources to meet their needs in old age. Paid leave is essential to maintaining all workers’ attachment to the labor force, particularly for older workers who can take the time to address their health needs or care for loved ones and then return to work.26
Additionally, there are a significant number of older women who are not in the labor force for reasons unrelated to retirement or health status. Most of these women are taking care of others. For example, nearly 20 percent of women between the ages of 55 and 64 who are not in the labor force are not participating because they are full-time caregivers. That number was more than 4.5 times that of their male counterparts. Roughly 1 in 3 older women who report not working because they are providing care are taking care of children, whereas 2 in 3 are caring for an older adult.27 This cautions against efforts to implement new Medicaid work requirements that would most certainly place hardships on women across the age distribution—and especially older women who provide care for older adults.28
Older women’s labor market engagement translates directly into gains in economic security. Expanding the quantity and quality of employment opportunities for those at older ages is important for women’s well-being, considering that women, on average, live longer than men and that they also face greater risks of poverty and material hardships as they age.29 Policies like the FAMILY Act, that promote greater equity in the labor market, will also help to close gender gaps in retirement income.30 Shoring up and expanding older women’s labor market engagement is also important for the economy at large. As the U.S. population grows older, future productivity and economic growth will increasingly rely on older women working in good-quality jobs.
A comprehensive policy agenda to support older women’s employment deserves prioritization. Such an agenda would address the obstacles older women face in maintaining attachment to paid work and would encompass comprehensive paid leave; caregiver supports; workplace accommodations for those with health limitations; pay equity; job quality; economic mobility; and protections against age discrimination and intersectional discrimination in the workplace. The White House’s executive orders are an example of the important steps the current administration is taking to address needs that particularly affect older Americans—both those working and retired.31 Against the backdrop of the population aging, the U.S. economy cannot afford to take older women and their economic contributions for granted.
* Correction, May 24, 2023: This article has been updated to clarify the 2023 first-quarter median weekly earnings for older men.