Bureau of Labor Statistics

Thanks for boosting the economy, gramps!

February 7, 2014: 10:34 AM ET

While workers age out of the workforce, many are also voluntarily staying in. And this could boost U.S. growth.

By Brian Jacobsen

140207101624-older-worker-with-briefcase-620xaFORTUNE – With Friday's monthly jobs report, there's something to support just about any view, and you often get from the data what you were looking for.

However, it's worth taking a closer look at the decline of the U.S. population with jobs and what that tells us about the health of the labor market. Although the employment-to-population ratio rose slightly in January, it has generally declined over the past few years. Part of the fall is due to demographics. The rest is due to the nature of this economic recovery, but blaming it on slower growth seems to be a never-ending story. After all, the recession ended in June 2009.

For much of the past few decades, the U.S. experienced what economists call a "demographic dividend" -- a rise in productivity, lower child mortality rates, and longer life-expectancies. Most of the time, it is assumed that a country gets one shot at a demographic dividend, but the U.S. may soon get to cash in another one.

The first real signs of the demographic dividend in the U.S. became apparent after the 1964 Civil Rights Act with an increase in women and minorities entering the workforce. The employment-to-population ratio dramatically shot up from 55% to 58% shortly after 1964. Those who were working made up a bigger share of the population, all of whom were consuming.

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After that, it increased in waves that peaked prior to recessions and troughed shortly afterwards, to reach a maximum of 64.7% in 2000. As of December 2013, the employment-to-population ratio stood at 58.6%, the same as in October 1983 -- less than a year after the double-dip recession of 1980 to 1982.

It has been widely reported that more people are leaving the labor force as the country ages, but there's much more to this story.

A growing share of the 65 and over population is choosing to work in retirement, compared to the past 30 years. This is partly due to economic necessity, but there's also another reason -- they simply want to.

Depending on its nature, work can be psychologically and physically beneficial. From 2000 to 2006, the average percentage of people age 65 or older who were employed was 13.5%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In November 2013, this percentage was 17.7%. A lot of these jobs are better than average as reflected in the fact that the median weekly earnings of those working full-time and age 65 or over in the fourth quarter of 2013 was more than 7% higher than the median for the entire working population, according to the bureau's Weekly Earnings release.

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Not only is the elderly population growing, with a larger share working, but older workers are also becoming better educated with 24.3% of them with a bachelor's degree or higher. Educational attainment matters for this economic recovery and also for future growth.

There is a mixed answer to whether the decline in the employment-to-population ratio is permanent or temporary. It's a little of both, but I think we'll see it improve as more of the elderly continue to stay in the labor force. That could serve as a tremendous boost to economic growth in the future, adding up to a full percentage point to gross domestic product over the next five years. Just like women and minorities entering the workforce helped drive economic growth higher and faster during the latter part of the 20th Century, elderly people staying in the workforce can give U.S. growth another needed boost.

Brian Jacobsen is chief portfolio strategist with Wells Fargo Funds Management, LLC. Jacobsen also heads the financial planning program at Wisconsin Lutheran College.

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