Labor Force Participation Rates by Age and Gender and the Age and Gender Composition of the U.S. Civilian Labor Force and Adult Population

May 2018
EBRI Issue Brief #449
Paperback, 22 pp.
PDF, 705 kb
Employee Benefit Research Institute, 2018

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Executive Summary

This Issue Brief examines the U.S. civilian labor force, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. First, the labor force participation rates by age and gender are discussed. Furthermore, the age and gender composition of the labor force is compared with the age and gender composition of the total adult population. This allows for the identification of key labor force and population trends.

The key findings relating to age and the labor force:

Labor force participation (LFP) rates of specific ages:

  • For Americans ages 55 or older, the LFP rate increased from 1991 to 2012, at which point it leveled off.
  • The oldest Americans (ages 65 or older) had the largest percentage increases in LFP rates since 1991, even after the leveling off post-2012.
  • For those ages 25-54, LFP rates have been steady to slightly declining since 1991.
  • For those ages 24 or younger, LFP rates declined significantly throughout the 1990s to 2010, at which point the rates leveled off.

The age distribution of the ages 16 or older population and labor force followed these patterns over the 1991-2017 period:

  • From 1991 to 1994, those ages 55 or older experienced a slight decline in their share of the population and labor force, but after 1994 their share of the population and labor force grew substantially.
  • From 1991 to 1997, those ages 35-54 represented an increasing share of the population–and until 1996 of the labor force–before a significant decline in their share of the population and labor force through 2017.
  • Those ages 16-34 represented a declining share of both the population and labor force until their shares leveled off in the most recent years.
  • While the portion of the total labor force ages 55 or older continued to increase since 2007, the uptick has been primarily attributable to the continued aging of the baby boom generation into these ages, and not to an increasing percentage of older workers remaining in the labor force. Before 2007, the increasing share of workers ages 55 or older was due, both to increases in the labor force participation rates for these ages and to the large baby boom generation beginning to reach these ages.
  • From the employer perspective, the increase in the share of individuals ages 55 or older in the population and in the labor force means that employers have been, and will continue to be, challenged to provide benefits that meet the needs of these older workers, while still meeting the needs of younger workers who are starting to grow as a share of the labor force.

The key findings relating to gender:

  • The male LFP rate declined from 1991-2017, while the female LFP rate increased through 1999, then held nearly steady until 2008 before falling. 
  • For those ages 16 or older, the gender distribution of the population and the labor force shifted in opposite directions over the 1975-2017 period:
  • The percentage of the population represented by women decreased by about 1 percentage point (52.8 percent in 1975 to 51.7 percent in 2017). Conversely, the share of the population that was male increased by about 1 percentage point (47.2 percent in 1975 to 48.3 percent in 2017).
  • From 1975-1999, the female share of the labor force increased by 6.1 percentage points (40.6 percent to 46.7 percent). However, from 2000-2017, the female share of the labor force held relatively steady reaching 46.9 percent in 2017. There was a corresponding decrease in the percentage of the labor force that was male.
  • The increased share of females in the labor force occurred across all ages, with the youngest workers (ages 16-24) being almost equally divided between genders.

Implications for the future:

  • The share of the labor force that is ages 55 or older will continue to grow in the short term because of the size of the baby boom generation, but will begin to shrink as the next generation of workers reach age 55.
  • The share of the labor force represented by workers ages 25-34, which has been increasing slowly, will continue to increase–likely more quickly–as the baby boom generation workers leave the labor force. 
  • Many employers are likely to be faced with a bimodal labor force distribution across the ages–larger numbers of both older and younger workers with fewer numbers of workers at ages in between–which presents different (and possibly incompatible) compensation and benefit challenges.