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Women and Work in BC Series: The Rise of the Older Working Woman

This is the sixth in a series of blogs highlighting the economic imperative of addressing gender equity issues across the full spectrum of market domains and organizational settings. The data are derived from a multi-year research project, which we will publish in April 2018. 

Blog 1:  Why the Gender Gap Matters
Blog 2:  Who's In, Who's Out?  The Participation Rate
Blog 3:  The Part-Time Difference
Blog 4:  Ms. Opportunity:  The Link Between Education, Child Care, and Missed Opportunity
Blog 5:  Women's Entrepreneurship and Self-Employment 
Blog 6:  The Rise of the Older Working Woman


Blog 6:  The Rise of the Older Working Woman

By Denise Mullen and Kristine St-Laurent

Demographic trends present opportunities galore

What age group is growing the fastest? The answer may surprise you: Statistics Canada data shows that the cohort of women over 50 in BC is expanding quickly, a natural consequence of aging demographics and longer life expectancy.[1]  And unlike generations before, these women are rushing into (or remaining in) the labour market.  


Figure 1:  Number of BC Women by Age Group, 2016


          Source:  Statistics Canada, 051-0001.


Participation rate trends for women ages 50 to 64 years

The labour force participation rate for women in this age category has jumped 32 percentage points since 1976 (see purple line in Figure 2). That’s an impressive gain, regardless of age category, but even more remarkable in this case. Between 2014 and 2016 alone, labour force participation among this group rose from 18% to 22%. Women between 50 and 64 years of age now have a higher participation rate (67%) than the overall female average of 60% (see blue line).


Figure 2:  Participation Rate for BC Women by Age Group, 1976 to 2016


          Source:  Statistics Canada, 280-0002.


Demographically, this group of women represents the middle-to-end of the baby boom generation.  They also consist of women who are generally beyond their child-rearing years, may be newly single, and professionally may be in senior leadership positions.  

Pushing back retirement

For many British Columbians, gone are the days of retiring earlier than age 65. Today, many women do not expect to retire until at least 65 years, some not until their 70s, and others say they will never choose to retire.[2] The reasons vary from personal preference to a change in marital status or financial security concerns. Regardless, it is important to value and use willing and able workers — the foregone economic benefits from failing to do so are substantial.  Older women have a deep and rich source of knowledge and skills that can help to meet BC’s labour market needs.

Participation rate for women aged 65 to 69

The evidence of later retirement is seen in the dramatic changes for women between 65 to 69 years. In 1976, the labour force participation rate for this group was 5.9%; by 2016 it had soared to 22.2% — a fourfold increase.  While men this age still participate in work more than women, women are catching up.

Figure 3:  BC Labour Force Participation Rate for Women and Men Aged 65 to 69 years, 1976-2016


          Source:  Statistics Canada, 282-0002.


Participation rate trends for women ages 70+

The participation rate for women aged 70 and up has also risen, nearly doubling in the past several years – albeit from a very low base.  The same trend is seen among men.  In 2016, the number of women 70 and older who were still in the labour force increased by 35% from 2015,[3] compared to a jump of 24% for men.  Although the participation rate for this age category is still low in comparison to other age groups, an increase of this magnitude within a short time period is notable.


Figure 4:  BC Labour Force Participation Rate for Women 70 and Older,


          Source:  Statistics Canada, 282-0002.


What’s in store for the future?

Two major shifts stand out when looking at participation rates among older women. More women are 1) participating in paid work and 2) working past age 64.  These developments challenge the traditional picture of women and work. The life cycle pattern used to have two stages. Women would enter work, drop out to have and raise children, then possibly re-enter in their 30s and 40s. They would then gradually exit the workforce as they edged close to retirement age (historically, between 55 and 64). Increasingly, the period of work is being extended with more women working through to their mid- to late-60s and sometimes past 70.  

This trend should bode well for future generations of women and for labour supply.  One robust predictor of whether a woman will return to work later in life is whether she had work experience early in her career. The fact that labour force participation is high for young women – and that more of these women hold post-secondary credentials – suggests that, over time, they are more apt to return to the workforce when they are older, even if they temporarily drop out due to family obligations. Government and industry need to pay attention and find ways to grow and upskill the labour force-attached older female worker.  They are valuable sources of talent, knowledge, experience, and mentorship for younger women.


[1] In 2016, life expectancy for women in BC was 85 years; for men, 81 years.

[2] MetLife mature Market Institute. It’s not your mother’s retirement; A MetLife Study of Women & Generational Differences. 2008

[3] Rising from 7.9% to 9.8%.