Why Old Age Could Kill American Unions

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Yesterday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the union membership rate in America continued its long, painful collapse in 2012, falling to 11.3 percent of all workers, its lowest level since the 1930s. As the AP notes, 30 years ago, 20 percent of all workers were in unions. In 1935, when President Roosevelt enshrined collective bargaining rights in the National Labor Relations Act, the rate was 13.2 percent.

For all intents and purposes, organized labor has been blasted back to its pre-modern era. 

And yet, things stand to get much worse in the coming years, whether or not red state politicans keep passing right-to-work laws or factories go on another spree of layoffs. You see, unions aren't just shrinking: They're getting older. Significantly older. The graph below looks at the composition of union members by age over the past decade. Today, almost a quarter of union members are older than 55, up from around 15 percent in 2002. 

Union_Membership_Composition_Age.PNG

There are two forces at work here. First, middle-aged workers are turning into old workers as the baby boomers head towards the last decade or so of their careers. Second, the unions are failing to add younger members (or, alternatively, those young members are being laid off by local governments and factories). That next graph shows those shifts in terms of raw numbers, as well as percent change.  

Union_membership_percent_change_age_bls.PNG

Unless unions somehow become adept at organizing workers in their 20s and 30s soon, old age is going to take a serious bite out of their membership over the next ten years. Given the size of their 55-64-year-old bucket, they stand to loose another sixth of their membership to retirement in the next decade.* That's 2.4 million members who will need to be replaced just to maintain the current rolls -- much less grow in line with the overall workforce. America's incredible shrinking unions are set to keep shrinking, incredibly.

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*The 55-to-64 demographic tends to be 80-to-90 percent larger than the 65-and-over group. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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