In the year since the pandemic upended the economy, more than four million people have quit the labor force. They are not counted in the most commonly cited unemployment rate, which stood at 6.2 percent in February, making the group something of a hidden casualty of the pandemic.
Now, as the labor market begins to emerge from the pandemic’s vise, whether those who have left the labor force return to work — and if so, how quickly — is one of the big questions about the shape of the recovery, Sydney Ember reports for The New York Times.
For the legion of older workers who hope to return to work after the pandemic, a challenging path may lie ahead. Studies show that older people who leave the work force will have a more difficult time re-entering it because of age discrimination and other reasons. If that reality holds during the recovery, the number of older workers who have left the labor force — either because they could not find a job or because they retired early — could be one of the pandemic’s enduring consequences.
One prevailing question is whether employers, as in the past, will look askance at those who have been out of the labor force for a significant time.
Even in a tight labor market, long-term unemployed workers faced a stigma, said Maria Heidkamp, the director of the New Start Career Network, which helps older job seekers in New Jersey.
“In addition to any age, race or gender discrimination that they may already encounter, there’s a lot of evidence that it is easier to get a job if you already have a job,” she said. Though employers may overlook any pandemic résumé gap, she said, “there’s no reason to think that that is going to be different for these people, who are on the sidelines right now who want to come back.”
Still, many economists believe that the extraordinary number of people who have left the labor force will be more of a temporary blip than emblematic of a deeper structural issue. They expect that many who have left the labor force in the last year will return to work once health concerns and child care issues are alleviated. And they are optimistic that as the labor market heats up, it will draw in workers who grew disenchanted with the job search.
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