Older U.S. residents were more likely to be working or looking for work in 2003 than they were in 2002.[@@]

When Sara Rix, a researcher at the AARP Public Policy Institute, Washington, analyzed the latest figures on employed and unemployed members of the U.S. labor force from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, she found that the participation rate for workers who were at least 55 increased to 35.7%, from 34.5% in 2002.

The growth rate was faster for workers ages 65 and over, Rix writes in a report on the analysis.

The participation rate increased to 27.4%, from 26.1%, for workers ages 65 to 69; to 14.6%, from 14%, for workers ages 70 to 74; and to 5.8%, from 5.1%, for workers ages 75 and over.

The gain was most dramatic for women ages 65 to 69. Their labor participation rate jumped to 22.7%, from 20.8%.

The increase in older workers’ participation in the labor force emerged even as a weak economy cut the participation rate for workers under 55 to 78.2%, from 78.7%.

Some economists are predicting that the Social Security trust fund and private retirement plans will be stronger than expected because many Americans will work past the “normal” retirement age.

A November 2003 AARP survey found that 20% of all retires over age 54 and 5% of retirees over age 64 were thinking about returning to work because of the recent performance of their investments.

But Rix notes that a big expansion in the percentage of older Americans who work might require a change in employer attitudes as well as a change in older Americans’ interest in working.

“Age continues to work against many older men and women in the labor force, as evidenced by the length of time it takes so many who have become unemployed to find work,” Rix writes.

The average duration of unemployment was 18.4 weeks for job seekers under age 55 and 25.5 weeks for workers over age 54, Rix writes.