Raising the retirement age for working individuals is one of the primary proposals public officials discuss when it comes to Social Security. This policy effort rests on the assumption that increases in life expectancy mean that workers can easily work beyond the current normal retirement ages. However, this assumption ignores the fact that increases in longevity disproportionately apply to those in higher income brackets, and that many workers cannot continue to meet the physical demands of their job.
A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) using data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) and Occupational Information Network (O*NET) updates an earlier report, comparing the findings on the percentages of older workers in physically demanding jobs or difficult work conditions in 2014 with the percentages found in 2009.
The report, “Still Working Hard: An Update on the Share of Older Workers in Physically Demanding Jobs”, shows that although there was a significant decline in the share of older workers who worked in jobs that have high physical demands compared to 2009, those declines disproportionately went to better educated and higher paid workers.
“Forcing older workers to work later into their life would pose a serious hardship for the millions of workers who work in physically demanding jobs or in difficult working conditions,” said Cherrie Bucknor, a co-author of the report.
The authors find that about 10.2 million workers ages 58 and older (43.8 percent) were employed either in physically demanding jobs or jobs with difficult working conditions. There is a clear class dimension when it comes to raising the retirement age since workers who are most likely to be in physically demanding jobs are Latinos, those with less than a high school degree, immigrants, and the lowest wage earners.
According to the report, 51.0 percent of older Latino workers had physically demanding jobs, with 9.1 percent having jobs with high physical demands. By comparison, the percentages for Blacks were 38.9 percent and 4.3 percent, respectively and for White workers 31.8 percent and 2.8 percent.
Older workers with less than a high school diploma had the highest share of workers in physically demanding jobs, with 68.4 percent in jobs with some physical demands and 12.8 percent in jobs with high physical demands. In contrast, only 22.7 percent of workers with a college degree were in physically demanding jobs, and 1.4 percent were in jobs with high physical demands.
The report also noted that 46.6 percent of immigrant workers ages 58 and older had physically demanding jobs, compared to 32.7 percent for non-immigrant workers.
Additionally, the report found that 54.8 percent of older workers in the bottom wage quintile had physically demanding jobs compared to 16.2 percent of those in the top quintile. The share in jobs with high physical demands was 6.4 percent for the bottom quintile and just 1.7 percent for those in the top quintile.
From the standpoint of plans to increase the Social Security retirement age, these data indicate that many workers – especially racial and ethnic minorities, less educated workers, and lower earners – would face serious hardship by working later into their life.