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Older job holders thriving since ’01

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Without fanfare, older workers — the ones seemingly left behind by the dot.com boom — are turning out to be the only group thriving in the jobless recovery.

Even as younger workers have lost ground, a higher percentage of those aged 55 to 64 hold jobs today than when the economy plunged into hard times in early 2001. Their success has shifted the composition of the work force: Older people now account for 12 percent of the United States' workers, up from 10.2 percent in 2000. That was the year when the dot-com boom, so favorable to the young, began to collapse.

As if to rub in the point, the raises given in America today go disproportionately to workers in their last decade before retirement.

These older workers, particularly women, are enjoying an unusual late-in-life success — as survivors of the disintegrating job security that began to spread through the work force early in their careers, undermining pensions and lifetime employment. Layoffs and retirement reduced their ranks in the early 1990s recession and its aftermath, but not this time.

"I am surprised by their resilience," said Robert M. Hutchens, an economist at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. So were a dozen other experts interviewed. Like the wider public, most had the impression that older workers were suffering. The data compiled by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics now tells an unmistakably different story.

The reasons vary. Men who got new jobs after layoffs are trying to recoup lost pay in their final preretirement years. Or they never lost a job, but with pensions shrinking, they cannot afford to retire. Women play a big role. Many entered the work force in their 40s and still consider themselves in midcareer, or they have not saved enough to retire.

Many employers are holding onto older workers until the economy strengthens and they hire again, among younger people.

Since March 2001, when the last recession began, the percentage of working people in the population of 55- to 64-year-olds has steadily risen, reaching a peak of 60 percent in the spring, or 16.4 million men and women, up from 58.1 percent and 14.5 million workers. While that gain appears to have tapered off this summer, the older workers were still the only age group to improve their lot during the recession and jobless recovery.