US workers toil as the world retires

Only Korea and Japan have higher percentages of workers ages 65 to 69, but they're rare even in Europe's strongest economies.

By Jason Notte Jul 19, 2013 7:25AM
Chart depicting employment to population ratio for ages 65-69 (Courtesy of Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)We've said this before and have no trouble saying it again: You're never going to retire.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently released a chart of employment rates among people ages 65 to 69 around the world, and it shows that 29.9% of Americans of those ages are still employed.

They look like slackers compared with their counterparts in Korea (42.5%) and Japan (37%), but they're also a big mystery to workers in Germany, where only 10% of the population remains in the workforce.

Older U.S. workers aren't exactly in bad company, though. More than 23% of their neighbors to the north are still working beyond typical retirement age, while more than 26% of Norwegians and Australians of similar vintage are still logging hours. It doesn't get much easier in the U.K., where 20% are still working and where McDonald's employs workers as old as 88.

Still, much of Europe provides a problematic comparison when it comes to calling it a career. Spain, Greece and Italy have only 5.2%, 6.8% and 8% of their citizens between 65 and 69 still in the workforce, but continued economic turbulence in those countries calls the wisdom of those rates into question. But Portugal, even with nearly 22% of its older workforce still on the clock, finds itself no better off than the other three.

That gives the European Union's 8.7% average employment rate for workers older than 65 some room for doubt, but it doesn't necessarily explain why the U.S. rate remains so high. After all, France is still one of the EU's economic pillars, with fewer than 6% of its 65-69 crowd continuing to work. In neighboring Belgium, that rate drops to 4.7%, while it sits at 12.7% just north in the Netherlands.

Before you start calling the Europeans loafers and touting the great American work ethic, however, just remember that in better times our employment rates looked just like theirs. Back in 1990, only 12.1% of Americans 65 and older were still working. By 2010, the percentage had jumped to 16.1%. Even among 65-to-69-year-olds, only 21.8% were still employed in 1990.

Americans just don't have the safety net they once did. The Center for Retirement Research says fewer than a third of U.S. workers have a pension, down from 44% in 1995 and 88% in Reagan-era 1983.

It's not getting better for younger generations. The Pew Charitable Trusts says the leading edge of Generation X -- folks born from 1966 to 1975 -- lost about 45% of its wealth during the Great Recession and seriously dimmed its prospects for retirement.

Enjoy permanent employment, America. Apparently, you've earned it.

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