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October 06, 2003
Needing Money and Benefits, More Older Women Are Working

Three years ago, before the recession officially began, 50.3 percent of women between the ages 55 to 64 were working full- or part-time. As of last month, that figure had risen to 54.1 percent, according to new figures released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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The Washington Post observes that the increase is particularly striking when contrasted with what's happened in every other sector of the workforce. For all of them, participation has gone down.

The percentage of working men ages 25 to 54 declined during the same period from 89.1 percent to 86.4 percent. Working women ages 25 to 54 declined from 73.9 percent to 71.6 percent. Working men ages 20 to 24 declined 5.4 percentage points, women ages 20 to 24 declined 5.1 percentage points, and men ages 55 to 64 declined half a point.

The Post reports that other data helps explain why more older women are in the workforce.

There's been a growing demand in general for older workers in general, because they're seen as dependable. And they're seen that way because they're also desperate, according to Sara Rix, a policy analyst with AARP. Without savings and insurance as they near retirement age, these people work because they must, not necessarily because they want to.

That was underscored in a recent AARP survey that asked older workers to name the single reason they planned to work past retirement age. "Need money" and "need health benefits" were the top two, above such answers as a "desire to remain productive or useful," the Post reports.

Among women only, the need for money was the top answer by far, which becomes more understandable when viewed in the context of another study, by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, noting that the median annual income of women between 50 and 61 is just under $29,000, about two-thirds of what it is for similarly aged men.

"These are among the most vulnerable people in our society, women aged 50 and up," says Heidi Hartmann, an economist who is president of the institute. Many women on the high side of the median may be executives or managers who work because they want to, she says, but many on the low side work because their husbands have lost their jobs, or they lost their savings when the stock market declined, or they need even the most basic of benefits they otherwise would not have. "Because they have to," she says.

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