Supporting Older Women at Work

Policymakers must prioritize policies that support older women’s employment, reduce age and gender-based discrimination, and support mobility in their careers in order to grow the economy.

A cashier checks out a customer at a Walmart store in Miami on March 7, 2023. (Getty/Jeffrey Greenberg)

Other chapters in the Playbook for the Advancement of Women in the Economy

Today’s “older women”—those who are ages 55 and older—began their careers with the benefit of landmark progressive achievements such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,1 Title IX in the Education Act amendments of 1972,2 the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978,3 and U.S. Supreme Court decisions affirming women’s rights to contraception in 19654 and abortion in 1973.5 These policy accomplishments enabled women’s participation in the U.S. labor force—the share of the population that is working or looking for work—to surge to historic highs in the decades that followed, from 43 percent in 1970 to 60 percent by the turn of the 21st century.6

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Today, more and more women in their 50s, 60s, and older continue to work later in life. More than 1 in 10 U.S. workers is a woman age 55 or older.7 But too often, older women workers find themselves dealing with the lifetime implications of the gender wage gap, trapped in low-wage occupations and facing an economically insecure retirement.8 In the coming years, an aging population and women’s increased educational attainment will mean that older women will become an increasingly important share of the U.S. labor force.9

This group demands the attention of federal and state policymakers who are seeking to grow the U.S. economy—and these older women workers have specific concerns. Most notably, women over the age of 50 often express concern over feeling “unheard” and “invisible” both at work and in politics.10 In a 2022 survey of women voters ages 50 and older, AARP reports that most women in this age group believe that elected officials do not understand their lives, particularly around caregiving challenges or living paycheck to paycheck.11

State and federal policymakers can ensure that older women are treated equitably in the labor market while also ensuring these workers can contribute to overall economic growth amid the coming demographic shift in the workforce. This report recommends an array of policies, including boosting funding for workforce development programs for older workers and expanding those programs’ constituent parts and raising the minimum wage. But first, this chapter of the “Playbook for the Advancement of Women in the Economy” details the problems facing older working women and the economic benefits of resolving them.

The problem

Hearing and seeing older women is the first step. But policymakers must then understand and address the obstacles getting in the way of older women’s economic security, particularly in the U.S. labor market. The three prevailing problems facing older women in the workforce are the quality of their jobs, their job prospects, and their financial instability.

Job quality

Despite long-standing attachments to the workforce, many older women in the United States face barriers to securing good-quality jobs. More than 1 in 3 older women work in low-wage jobs, and occupational segregation limits upward earnings potential for large numbers of late-career women.12 Women who are Black, American Indian and Native Alaskan, Asian American and Pacific Islander, of multiple races, or Hispanic are especially at risk of becoming stuck in low-wage work at older ages.

Most notably, older Black and Hispanic women experience the largest gender wage gaps.13 And when broader measures of job quality are considered—including pay, hours, scheduling, benefits, job security, working conditions, on-the-job training, advancement, and worker voice—women, especially Black women and Latinas, come out behind.14

Job prospects

Unemployment poses particular risks for older women. When older women are laid off, they often find themselves in increased financial hardship as they tend to have less savings to absorb losses of employment as a result of the gender wage gap.15 In addition, older women face an increased likelihood of staying unemployed following loss of employment.16

Data on displaced workers, or those who lost or left a job of three years or more through no fault of their own, show that despite the strong post-pandemic labor market, women older than 65 experience higher shares of unemployment than younger women and men of the same age group and are at higher risk of dropping out of the labor force entirely after losing a long-term job than younger women and men.17

For older women, gaps in employment can be especially problematic for their own and their family’s medical insurance needs.18 Because the risk of chronic health conditions grows with age, even those who obtain coverage through Medicare or the Affordable Care Act marketplace may find themselves underinsured on a comparable basis after losing employer-based coverage due to unemployment. They may be able to find health insurance coverage, but may also find that care comparable to their previous employer-based coverage is unaffordable.19

In addition, age discrimination can also limit job prospects for older women.20 Despite the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967,21 which prohibits employment-related age discrimination for those 40 years of age and older, age bias remains rampant in the U.S. workforce, affecting everything from hiring, to training and promotion, to layoffs.22

Indeed, the problem of age discrimination was exacerbated by the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, as a result of which workers claiming age discrimination now face a higher standard of proof in making those claims, compared with those who experience discrimination on the basis of other protected classes under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.23 This higher standard of proof means that employees must prove that age was the ultimate factor used to make an adverse employment decision, such as a layoff. Prior to the case, workers were allowed to show that age was a motivating factor.

Lower educational attainment and lack of opportunities for training and promotion also negatively affect older women’s labor market outcomes. Older women are much less likely than women from younger generations to hold college degrees of any kind24—whether they are associate, bachelor’s, or advanced degrees—which can limit their labor market prospects.25 For many, longer careers may mean they need to acquire new skills in order to access opportunities for advancement. But there is evidence that older women may not have access to training on the same basis as younger individuals.26

Polling suggests that Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) and members of Generation X (1965 to 1980) are less satisfied than Millennials (1981 to 1996) and Generation Z (1997 to 2012),27 who are receiving the skills training they need from their employers to maintain or grow their careers.28 And in light of the cost of higher education and the growth of student debt among older adults, increased college degree attainment for older workers may not be the most effective solution.29

Financial instability

Job quality issues, limited labor market prospects, and the consequences of the gender pay gap set women up for financial instability as they age. Moreover, most women who work into older ages do so as an economic necessity, not just a desire to work.30 Factors contributing to this include the growing share of older women who are divorced or never married and the disappearance of defined-benefit pensions.31

Moreover, women today have longer average lifespans alongside higher medical costs. Increases to the full retirement age to qualify for Social Security is another contributor to financial insecurity.32 And an inadequately funded social safety net has contributed to women working into later ages.33

The economic benefits

The aging of the U.S. population means that the economy will rely more and more on the economic contributions of older adults in the years ahead. More than 60 percent of growth in the U.S. labor force through the end of the 2020s will come from workers ages 65 and older, according to projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.34 Women ages 55 and older are projected to grow their ranks in the workforce by more than 2.2 million by 2031, with more than half of that growth occurring among women ages 65 to 74 by 2031.35

While this largely reflects demographic changes, it also is the case that the women aging into these groups have higher educational attainment and are generally healthier than the cohorts of women before them.36 It is incumbent upon policymakers to ensure that these women have full opportunities to deploy their skills and to develop new ones to secure their own economic stability and to contribute to productivity and economic growth.

To demonstrate the economic stakes, one estimate pegs the cost of age discrimination to the U.S. economy at $850 billion in 2018—and growing to $2 trillion by 2030. This encompasses the costs associated with involuntary retirement, underemployment (part-time work and the inability to change jobs), and unemployment of individuals ages 50 and older due to age discrimination. With those kinds of harmful consequences to future growth in U.S. gross domestic product, the urgency of action today becomes clear.37

Women represent nearly two-thirds of all individuals ages 65 and older living in poverty.

The stakes are high for older women as well. Women represent nearly two-thirds of all individuals ages 65 and older living in poverty.38 Supporting older women’s efforts to secure and hold onto good-quality jobs translates directly into greater economic security for them in the short term and over time.39 Earnings from work finance current consumption and also boost future Social Security benefits and may even allow older working women to accrue supplemental retirement savings. Earnings also may allow women to delay claiming Social Security benefits, which increases their monthly benefits even more.40

The policy recommendations

Supporting older women at work means, first and foremost, recognizing their value in the workplace. This specifically requires the consideration of older women in U.S. employment policies and workforce development programs. Policymakers at the federal and state levels need to strengthen protections against age discrimination and work to ensure older women have access to good-quality jobs.

Federal policy recommendations

Federal policymakers have an array of legislative and fiscal policies to support older women in the workforce nationwide. Among them are:

  • Address age discrimination for job applicants: Passing the Protecting Older Job Applicants (POJA) Act is the first key step.41 This proposed law would clarify that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act specifically includes job applicants. This is necessary, as two federal circuit court decisions over the past five years—Villareal v. RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company and Kleber v. CareFusion Corp—held that some provisions of that law only apply to current employees, not job applicants.42 Job applicants also must be protected from age discrimination given the importance of job switching for economic advancement and the difficulties older women experience in becoming reemployed after becoming unemployed.
  • Pass the bipartisan Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act: This proposed legislation would restore the Age Discrimination in Employment Act to the pre-Gross v. FBL Financial Services standard, once again allowing for mixed-motive claims and giving victims of age discrimination equal footing to challenge unfair treatment.
  • Include older women in workforce development programs: Reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act presents an opportunity to tailor programs to the needs of older women workers in the workforce development system through the promotion of targeted training, job search assistance, and wraparound services that directly address barriers facing older women seeking new skills. This is important as the workforce development system often fails to meet the needs of older women because no special programs exist to serve them, despite their unique needs.43
  • Modernize the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) to meet future needs: Congress should prioritize shoring up this program—the only federal job training program targeted to low-income, older adults facing multiple barriers to employment—through the annual appropriations process and the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act of 1965, which provides a range of supportive services for older adults, including nutrition services, cargiver supports, and elder abuse prevention.44 Restored funding is critical as this program for older workers has failed even to keep pace with wage growth in the U.S. economy and the increased size of the older adult population. Doing so would enable SCSEP to serve a greater number of individuals who qualify for it but cannot currently be served. And with women accounting for two-thirds of those served by the SCSEP, expanding the number of individuals the program can serve would directly affect older women who face the greatest barriers to finding work.45
  • Raise the federal minimum wage to at least $17 per hour: Given older women’s overrepresentation in low-wage occupations, passing the proposed Raise the Wage Act to increase the $7.25 federal minimum wage to $17 per hour would improve job quality and older women’s economic security.46

State policy recommendations

State policymakers can complement federal policy in supporting older women workers and also do so directly. Here are three examples:

  • Strengthen protections against age discrimination: States can combat age discrimination by prohibiting employers from asking job applicants for information related to their age, such as dates of birth and school graduation or attendance dates. To date, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania have passed legislation in this vein.47 States can also eliminate maximum hiring ages and mandatory retirement ages in favor of standards that are based on skills and competencies.48
  • Implement skills-based hiring: Skills-based hiring places less emphasis on formal credentials and more on workers’ competencies and skills, which could advance equity in state labor markets for older workers, particularly those without college degrees.49 State policymakers should embrace a greater emphasis on skills-based hiring by encouraging the private sector to follow the public sector’s lead in removing academic degrees as a proxy for skills in job descriptions50 and promoting similar skills-based hiring in the public service workforce similar to steps recently taken in Minnesota.51
  • Increase state minimum wages: In the absence of federal action, 30 states and Washington, D.C., have increased their minimum wages above the $7.25 federal minimum wage.52 Yet even in these states, 1 in 5 workers—nearly 18 million—receives less than $17 per hour, leaving room for improvement. For the remaining states that continue to follow the federal minimum wage, 1 in 4 workers—nearly 14 million—are paid less than $17 per hour. It is imperative that those states take steps to raise their minimum wages.53


Supporting the participation of older women in the U.S. labor market and expanding their access to quality jobs is good public policy that can benefit individual women, their families, and the U.S. economy as a whole. Federal and state policymakers must attend to their needs. Indeed, as the U.S. population continues to age, older women will be a key source of the future labor supply and a driver of economic growth and productivity.

The author would like to thank Anona Neil and Amina Khalique for their research assistance, as well as Sara Estep, Rose Khattar, Molly Weston Williamson, and Emily Gee for their thoughtful review.


  1. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” available at (last accessed November 2023); Tamara Lytle, “Title VII Changed the Face of the American Workplace,” SHRM, May 21, 2014, available at,about%20the%20concept%20of%20fairness.
  2. Elizabeth Tang and others, “Title IX at 50: A report by the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education” (Washington: National Women’s Law Center, 2022), available at
  3. Jocelyn Frye and Nora Ellmann, “Efforts to Combat Pregnancy Discrimination:Confronting Racial, Ethnic, and Economic Bias,” Center for American Progress, November 2, 2018, available at
  4. Joint Economic Committee Democrats, “The Economic Impacts of Contraception,” October 19, 2022, available at,of%20the%20gender%20wage%20gap.
  5. Heidi Williamson, “The Legacy of Roe v. Wade and the War on Poverty,” Center for American Progress, January 22, 2014, available at; Center for American Progress, “Abortion Rights,” available at (last accessed December 2023).
  6. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, “Labor Force Participation Rate – Women,” available at (last accessed November 2023).
  7. Beth Almeida and Sara Estep, “Five Facts on Older Women in the Labor Market,” Center for American Progress, May 23, 2023, available at
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Rachelle L. Cummins, “Worried, Invisible, and Unheard: Women Voters 50-Plus Speak Out,” AARP, June 10, 2022, available at
  11. Ibid.
  12. Beth Almeida and Christian E. Weller, “Promoting Economic Advancement for Older Women in the Workplace” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2024), available at
  13. Isabela Salas-Betsch, “5 Facts From the 2022 Wage Gap Data,” Center for American Progress, September 30, 2023, available at
  14. Ofronama Biu and others, “Job Quality and Race and Gender Equity” (Washington: Urban Institute, 2023), available at
  15. Almeida and Estep, “Five Facts on Older Women in the Labor Market”; Christian Weller and Michele E. Tolson, “Women’s Economic Risk Exposure and Savings” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2017), available at; Richard W. Johnson and Corina Mommaerts, “Age Differences in Job Loss, Job Search, and Reemployment” (Washington: Urban Institute, 2011), available at
  16. Johnson and Mommaerts, “Age Differences in Job Loss, Job Search, and Reemployment”; Catherine Hill and Gretchen Livingston, “Two Years into the Pandemic, Women Ages 65 and Older Had Yet to Recover Their COVID-related Employment Losses” (Washington: Women’s Bureau, 2022), available at
  17. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 1: Long-tenured displaced workers (1) by age, sex, race, Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, and employment status in January 2022,” available at (last accessed November 2023).
  18. Namkee G. Choi, Diana M. DiNitto, and Bryan Y. Choi, “Unmet Healthcare Needs and Healthcare Access Gaps Among Uninsured U.S. Adults Ages 50-64,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17 (8) (2020): 2711, available at
  19. Sara R.Collins, Lauren A. Haynes, and Relebohile Masitha, “The State of U.S. Health Insurance in 2022” (New York: The Commonwealth Fund, 2022), available at
  20. Almeida and Weller, “Promoting Economic Advancement for Older Women in the Workplace.”
  21. U.S. Department of Labor, “Age Discrimination,” available at,conditions%20or%20privileges%20of%20employment (last accessed November 2023).
  22. Lona Choi-Allum, “High on Priority List for Older Workers: Meaningful Employment and Flexibility,” AARP, January 18, 2023, available at
  23. For more information, see Dorsey & Whitney LLP, “Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc.: Age Discrimination Cases are a Different Breed,” June 26, 2009, available at
  24. U.S. Census Bureau, “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2022,” February 16, 2023, available at
  25. Michael Greenstone and others, “Thirteen Economic Facts about Social Mobility and the Role of Education” (Washington: Brookings, 2013), available at
  26. Almeida and Weller, “Promoting Economic Advancement for Older Women in the Workplace.”
  27. For generation definitions used by the author, see Michael Dimock, “Pew Research Center,” January 17, 2019, available at
  28. American Staffing Association, “Below Expectations: Employers Not Meeting Training Expectations of Workers,” January 20, 2022, available at
  29. Sarah Sattelmeyer and Tia Caldwell, “Why Do So Many Older Americans Owe Student Loans?”, New America, May 31, 2023, available at,%24125%20billion%20in%20student%20loans.
  30. Martha C. White, “More women think they’ll be working well into traditional retirement years,” CBS News, September 16, 2019, available at
  31. Francesca A. Marino, “Unmarried Adulthood: More than a Century of Change, 1900-2020,” Bowling Green State University, November 4, 2023, available at,adults%20has%20since%20doubled%20to%2084%25%20in%202020; U.S. Census Bureau, “Never Married on the Rise,” April 22, 2021, available at; Renee Stepler, “Led by Baby Boomers, divorce rates climb for America’s 50+ population,” Pew Research Center, March 9, 2017, available at
  32. AARP, “Is the Social Security retirement age going up?”, December 12, 2023, available at; Kathleen Romig, “Raising Social Security’s Retirement Age Would Cut Benefits for All New Retirees,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, April 25, 2023, available at
  33. National Bureau of Economic Research and others, Women Working Longer: Increased Employment at Older Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
  34. Kevin S. Dubina and others, “Projections overview and highlights, 2020–30,” Monthly Labor Review, October 2021, available at
  35. Almeida and Estep, “Five Facts on Older Women in the Labor Market.”
  36. Morgan Sherburne, “Older Americans are aging better than ever, especially women,” University of Michigan News, June 23, 2021, available at  
  37. AARP, “The Economic Impact of Age Discrimination” (Washington: 2020), available at
  38. Amber Christ and Tracey Gronniger, “Older Women & Poverty” (Washington: Justice in Aging, 2018), available at
  39. Almeida and Estep, “Five Facts on Older Women in the Labor Market.”
  40. Ibid.
  41. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, “Labor Leaders Introduce Bill to Protect Older Job Applicants,” Press release, May 19, 2023, available at
  42. Peter Gosselin, “Supreme Court Won’t Take Up R.J. Reynolds Age Discrimination Care,” ProPublica, June 26, 2017, available at; J. William Manuel, “Deep Impact – 7th Circuit Holds that Disparate Impact Claims for Job Applicants Not Covered by ADEA,” Bradley, January 29, 2019, available at
  43. Katharine G. Abraham and Susan N. Houseman, “Policies to improve workforce services for older Americans” (Washington: Brookings, 2020), available at
  44. Congressional Research Service, “Older Americans Act: Overview and Funding” (Washington: 2023), available at
  45. Cal J. Halvorsen and others, “How the Senior Community Service Employment Program Influences Participant Well-Being: A Participatory Research Approach With Program Recommendations,” Research on Aging 45 (1) (2023): 77–91, available at
  46. Almeida and Weller, “Promoting Economic Advancement for Older Women in the Workplace.”
  47. David Gartenberg, Maria-Jose Malaver-Reyes, and Grecia Santos, “Colorado Enacts Law Stopping Employers from Requesting Age-Related Information,” SHRM, June 16, 2023, available at
  48. AARP, “AARP Policy Book 2023-2024” (Washington: 2023), available at
  49. Opportunity@Work and Accenture, “Reach for the Stars: Realizing the Potential of America’s Hidden Talent Pool” (Washington: 2020), available at
  50. Marina Zhavoronkova and Kat Naranjo, “The Benefits of Skills-Based Hiring for the State and Local Government Workforce” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2022), available at
  51. Kilat Fitzgerald, “Waltz removes 4-year degree requirement for most state government jobs,” KSTP-TV, October 30, 2023, available at
  52. The Economic Policy Institute, “Minimum Wage Tracker,” July 1, 2023, available at
  53. The Economic Policy Institute, “Low Wage Workforce Tracker,” available at (last accessed November 2023).

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Beth Almeida

Senior Fellow


Women’s Initiative

The Women’s Initiative develops robust, progressive policies and solutions to ensure all women can participate in the economy and live healthy, productive lives.

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