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Upset about declining U.S. labor force participation rate? Talk to a baby boomer

Count Ron among a long list of 60-something job hunters who have written me in recent years. Sadly, his job was eliminated and he has found the job market to be unwelcoming.

Even though he feels “young and vibrant,” he thinks those screening job applicants “see their grandfather” when he is fortunate enough to land an interview. But he still is actively searching, and that is why I’m not using his full name here.

Ron doesn’t want to be job hunting at age 65. He doesn’t want to draw Social Security until he is 69. He wants to be working. But if he continues to come up empty, he could become one more unhappy statistic in the nation’s fallen labor force participation rate.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put the national labor force participation rate at 62.7 percent in December. That means about six in 10 people aged 16 and older were working or looking for work – a sizable participation decline from 67 percent in December 2000.

The percentage fell partly because of involuntary job loss coupled with a long-term inability to get rehired. When frustrated job hunters quit looking, they’re no longer counted among the workforce.

But the percentage also declined partly because of workers’ choices. As the big baby boom generation cycles into retirement, voluntary quits deflate labor force participation.

The Center on Aging & Work at Boston College cited a recent survey by Willis Towers Watson in which 64 percent of workers aged 65 and older said personal circumstances – not layoffs or downsizings or firings – affected their retirement decisions.

Those circumstances included desire for more leisure and family time. And about half said their employers’ retirement plans or other incentives helped them decide to leave work.

Another report, from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, noted that nine in 10 Americans begin collecting Social Security retirement benefits at or before their full retirement age. The most popular age to start is 62, the earliest age possible, even as the age to collect full benefits has ratcheted up to 66.

People can continue to work and still begin drawing Social Security, so a rush to draw benefits at age 62 in itself doesn’t account for the labor force participation decline. Another big contributor is individual health.

At least one-third of Americans over age 65 report some kind of disability – seeing, hearing, walking, thinking or taking care of daily living activities. Jobs available to people with disabilities aren’t easily found.

And even without a stated disability, many workers who have done decades of physical work simply can’t continue in the same capacities. In one way or another, they feel worn out.

All this is to say that it’s difficult to turn the labor force participation rate into a political football. Some people are being kicked off the playing field; others are quitting the team because they want to. A statistic alone doesn’t tell the whole story.

Diane Stafford is a columnist for The Kansas City Star., 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford,