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Jobless Rate Dips for Older Workers

National rate also declines, but number of new jobs disappointing

En español | The unemployment rate for older workers fell by 0.2 percent in January to 6.7 percent for a second straight month, remaining below the nation's overall jobless rate, which slid to 9 percent, the government reported on Friday. But the report was brighter for older men than women.

Among men age 55 and up, the jobless rate declined by 0.1 percent to 7.1 percent in January. The tide turned the other way for women in that age group: Their jobless rate rose to 6.3 percent in January from 5.8 percent in December.

Overall, the economy grew by only a disappointing 36,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The report suggested that American workers aren't enjoying many of the benefits of a nascent economic recovery. Though the stock market continues to rise and the economy is growing, companies are stubbornly holding back on hiring workers until future prospects are more certain.

Some blamed the blizzards of January for the lack of hiring.

"The weather completely distorted this report," says Sophia Koropeckyj, managing director at Moody's "There's no other reason that we should get a report this weak" involving job growth. "It's very unusual," she said.

She says a number of economic indicators are strong — people filing for first-time unemployment benefits are down, consumer spending is improving slightly and banks are showing an increased willingness to make loans. She also noted that some retailers retained temporary workers left over from the holidays, rather than let them go.

Not overly optimistic

Sara Rix, senior strategic adviser at AARP, says it's "difficult to get overly optimistic" about the January labor report. "The unemployment rate for persons age 55 and over may have fallen," she says. "However, the percent of the population with jobs showed little change."

Older job seekers continue to find it tough to land a job. As of January, workers age 55 and older had been out of work an average of 44.4 weeks, up from 42.8 weeks as of December. For workers under age 55, the average length of joblessness had lasted 33.9 weeks as of last month, up from 32.4 weeks in December.

The percentage of older workers who were working part time because they could not find full-time work also remained essentially unchanged since December.

Rix noted that the number of discouraged workers — people who have given up looking for work — declined from 308,000 to 200,000. But "it isn't clear how much of this was due to any real improvement in outlook and how much to older persons simply no longer expressing an interest in having a job, or something else."

The labor market varies by region. For a snapshot of the economic situation in your area, check out AARP's "pain index."

Productivity up

U.S. companies stepped up their productivity in the last quarter of 2010, the Commerce Department reported, meaning that they increased the work output of existing employees. Some economists predict that as companies meet the limits of this strategy, they will increasingly turn to increasing their payrolls to boost output.

In a news conference on Thursday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said he saw positive signs of economic growth but reiterated that the pace of recovery would be gradual.

Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.

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