Work’s Getting Easier for Most Older Workers

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Technology has had a profound impact on how we work. Changes in what employers expect from an aging workforce reflect that evolution – and the changes have largely been positive. 

Americans in their late 50s and early 60s increasingly are holding jobs that require them to be highly trained or college educated to take on the cognitive tasks the positions require. Occupations such as sales, production, laborer, and repair have given way to technical and professional employment, according to the Urban Institute’s in-depth analysis of U.S. occupational data.

But while the mix of jobs in the economy has clearly changed, the more significant change underway has occurred within specific occupations, the researchers said. Older workers find that all kinds of jobs have become less physically strenuous as automation and technology have increased and taken over some physical tasks – one example is robotic factory floors that still require human operators.

At the same time, employers are giving their older workers more flexibility to work independently, set their own pace, or work remotely. All these changes have made it easier for aging workers to stay in the labor force, even as they start to develop chronic medical conditions or physical ailments like arthritis.

One analysis in this study directly ties the evolution of work to why people stay in their jobs rather than apply to the Social Security Administration for disability benefits: the tendency of people with two or more health conditions to apply was muted if they were in jobs that rank high on the index for flexibility and have fewer tasks requiring physical labor.

What the researchers also see happening is that people with disabling conditions who do apply for disability benefits seem to be “an increasingly select subset of workers.” And life is getting harder for them.

They already faced inherent challenges at work, and yet the researchers found that they actually became less likely than they once were to be in professional jobs and more likely to have jobs requiring the stamina to lift heavy objects, climb stairs and ladders, or work on scaffolding.

Although all of today’s workers are more likely than in the past to have jobs with high cognitive demands, people who receive disability benefits work in these jobs less often than other workers. Only about 57 percent of the older people with work-limiting physical or medical conditions who have applied for benefits do this type of work – far below the 80 percent of people without work limitations whose jobs require cognitive skills.

Applicants “come from an increasingly select group of workers facing worsening job conditions and increasing work requirements,” the researchers concluded.

To read this study, authored by Barbara Butrica and Stipica Mudrazija, see “Health, Disability, and the Evolving Nature of Work.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.