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Older workers displace younger generations

The workplace is taking on a more mature appearance these days.

Battered retirement investments have led older workers to stay in, or re-enter, the workforce. And the situation has caused a shift in the average age of workers, with the percentage of young people dropping to the lowest level since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping track in 1948.

At this point, the percentage of people older than 65 in the workforce is at its highest rate since 1965, with almost 2 million older workers entering since the start of the Great Recession. There are now almost 7.7 million workers older than 65, or 18.5 percent of the workforce. That's 2 million more than the teenage cohort of workers.

It's not just the younger seniors who are still punching the time clock. The number of workers older than 75 has never been higher, with 7.8 percent of that age group in the workforce -- nearly double the percentage from 1987, when the government starting keeping track. There are now 1.4 million people 75 and older in the workforce.

Dennis Jacobe, chief economist for Gallup Inc. in North Carolina, said his organization has been tracking the same trends and working to understand what's going on.

"There are a couple of different factors," he said. "After the recession and financial crisis, a lot of older Americans lost their retirement nest eggs." Those workers don't have the time needed to recover their investments, so they have to go back to work.

The part-time jobs they desire, though, are a hot commodity with younger workers.

In a recent survey by Gallup, the company found 32 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were underemployed in April.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the percentage of the youngest workers, ages 16 to 19, who are working or even trying to get a job, fell to 31.8 percent in April. That's down from an annual rate of 41.3 percent in 2007, before the most recent recession. And the percentage of teens working is far off the annual rates of 51 to 57 percent that the country saw in the 1980s and 1990s.

Some of that might be by choice.

In the upper socioeconomic groups, a summer job isn't as important as it once might have been, said John Challenger, CEO of the Chicago-based placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

In past decades, teens would mow lawns or work a retail job for pocket money, but now he said, "Many teens don't want that. They want to go to camp or a summer program or take an internship."

He said there is more pressure to build a resume for college applications so teenagers are looking for experiences that have a cachet that a summer job does not.

Those who are trying to find work aren't finding much of it.

In April, teenagers had an unemployment rate of 23.2 percent, without seasonal adjustment. That was higher than any other age group and nearly double the rate for people 20 to 24.

For young people who want to work, many traditional avenues -- such as municipal jobs at community centers, parks or polls -- don't have the funding to hire teenage help.

"They're also being crowded out by competition from others," Challenger said.

The 20- to 24-year-old demographic is taking jobs that were once the province of teenagers. Those were the jobs, he said, that taught young people the foundations of working, such as showing up on time and being reliable.

"It's a tragedy," Challenger said. "If you don't have those beginning jobs, it's harder to build a working-life foundation."

While young people may need jobs to learn responsibility, employers still struggling in a tough economy often aren't in the mood to teach them.

Older workers, Jacobe said, tend to be more reliable.

"From a business point of view, you're getting a person with more experience," he said.

In West Mifflin, Kennywood Amusement Park has traditionally been inundated with applications from teens who live in the immediate area. Since the economic crisis of 2008, the applicant pool has broadened both in terms of age and geography.

Jeff Filicko, a spokesman for Kennywood, which also handles hiring for the nearby Sandcastle Waterpark, said the trend started to shift about three years ago. Not only teenagers were applying for work, but also people who were retirement age.

He said typically there are at least 3,000 applicants for the 1,200 jobs at Kennywood and 400 jobs at Sandcastle. But the company hires all season because there is a good deal of turnover among the young people who thought that working at Kennywood would be fun and later change their minds.

A job at an amusement park, he said, is "a great idea in theory, but then they find out it's work."

With a lifetime of work experience, the older employees know that even a job at Kennywood isn't always amusing.