Robust hiring kicked the unemployment rate down in December to 8.5 percent, its lowest level in almost three years, ending a fragile 2011 on an encouraging note.
Employers added 200,000 jobs last month, and older workers were carried along in that upswing, the government reported Friday.
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The jobless rate for people 55-plus fell to 6.2 percent in December from 6.4 percent in November.
Older men saw the biggest gains, with the rate sliding to 6.1 percent last month from 6.7 percent. Older women also got a slice of the action: Their jobless rate inched down to 5.7 percent in December from 5.8 percent the previous month.
For all of 2011, the economy added a total of 1.6 million jobs, even as employment in local, state and federal governments fell by 280,000, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.
In December, retail added the most jobs (28,000), followed by leisure and hospitality (24,000), and the manufacturing and health care sectors (23,000 each).
Though the recession officially ended in 2009, businesses have been reluctant to add workers amid weak consumer demand for goods and services. Toward the end of 2011, however, the pace of hiring increased as consumer confidence rose and Americans grew more upbeat about spending.
Solid progress, but problems remain
Marisa Di Natale, an economist at Moody's Analytics, called the December jobs report "a solid step in the right direction" but added there were troubling aspects as well.
Some industries didn't add as many jobs in December as they had in November, and the November figures were revised upward to 8.7 percent unemployment from the 8.6 percent originally reported, she noted.
In addition, some workers continue to be so discouraged that they have stopped looking for work, meaning they're no longer counted as unemployed.
More than 13 million people were out of work in December. Millions more were "underemployed," working part-time jobs because full-time ones were not available.
But there was good news on duration of joblessness. As of last month, the average length of unemployment for people 55 and older fell to 52.2 weeks, still a discouragingly long time, but better than the 58.2 weeks reported in the previous month. For people under 55, the duration fell to 37.5 weeks from 38 weeks in November.