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A record number of folks age 85 and older are working. Here's what they're doing

A record number of folks age 85 and older are working. Here's what they're doing
Bob Blocksom, 87, is interested in becoming a truck driver to help pay for medical expenses for his wife. (Dustin Franz / For the Washington Post)

Seventy may be the new 60, and 80 may be the new 70, but 85 is still pretty old to work. Yet in some ways, this is the era of the very old worker in America.

Overall, 255,000 Americans 85 years old and over were working over the last 12 months. That's 4.4% of Americans that age — up from 2.6% in 2006, before the recession. It's the highest number on record.

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They're doing all sorts of jobs — they’re crossing guards, farmers and ranchers. There are between 1,000 and 3,000 U.S. truckers age 85 or older, based on 2016 Census Bureau figures. Their ranks have roughly doubled since the Great Recession.

America's aging workforce has defined the post-Great Recession labor market. Baby boomers and their parents are working longer as life expectancies grow, retirement plans shrink, education levels rise and work becomes less physically demanding. Labor Department figures show that at every year of age above 55, U.S. residents are working or looking for work at the highest rates on record.

At the lower end of the age curve, the opposite holds true. Workers age 30 and younger are staying on the sidelines at rates not seen since the 1960s and 1970s, when women weren't yet entering the workforce at the level they are today.

People who are still working at age 85 or above are unusual. They hold very different jobs from their younger peers and rivals even as they don't vary significantly by race, ethnicity or geography.

Most of the oldest workers are concentrated in just 26 of the 455 occupations tracked by the Census Bureau data. Those same 26 occupations are home to less than a third of the total workforce.

Workers 85 and older are more common in less physical industries, such as management and sales, than they are in demanding ones such as manufacturing and construction.

Nobody questions whether older workers can make a difference. Some of America's most prominent workers are around 85. The oldest Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is 85. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is 87. So are billionaire investors George Soros and Warren Buffett and Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison.

For a more nuanced picture, we can consider the specific occupations in which any given worker is likeliest to be in the 85-plus group. To enable detailed analysis on such a small population, we aggregated census data from 2001 to 2016.

Crossing guards are relatively likely to be 85 or older. The same goes for musicians, anyone who works in a funeral home, and product demonstrators like those you might find at a warehouse club store.

But few people of any age get the opportunity to work as crossing guards, funeral directors or musicians. So, while they may be elder-friendly jobs, they're not the top jobs for older people.

By sheer numbers, the top job among people 85 and older is in the “farmers and ranchers” category. It's also the one in which the distribution of older workers is most different from the distribution of the rest of the population. That category, which is distinct from farm laborers, houses 3.5% of the oldest workers — but just 0.5% of the rest of the population.

Generational shifts drive much of the split. When today's oldest workers were entering the labor force, farmers and ranchers had far more options than computer scientists did, and that has shaped their professional choices today, seven decades down the line.

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