Factory worker

If People Can Work Longer, They Will

A majority of adults believe there’s better than a 50-50 chance they will still be working full-time after age 65, a new study found.

The evidence suggests this goal is fairly realistic.

In the study, adults ranging in age from 18 to 70 were asked to rate themselves on a 1-to-7 scale for 52 different cognitive, physical, psychomotor, and sensory abilities that determine their capacity to work. These abilities run the gamut from written comprehension, pattern recognition, and originality to finger dexterity, reaction time, and vision acuity.

Of course, physical abilities decline with age. But when the researchers compared older and younger participants in the study, they found that many self-assessments of their abilities were very similar. For example, psychomotor abilities – such as hand steadiness, manual dexterity, and coordination – were at peak levels for the people in their 30s. But these abilities were only slightly diminished for the people in their 60s. And despite concerns about cognitive decline among older workers, the difference between 50- and 60-year-olds was minor.

The heart of the research, funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration, was determining whether each individual’s distinct set of abilities affected his or her work capacity, as well as how long and how much the individual intends to work as they age. This issue is important, because extending a career is a powerful way to improve one’s financial security after retirement.

To determine this capacity for work, each individual’s self-assessed abilities were matched up with the skills required to do nearly 800 different U.S. occupations. The researchers then calculated the percentage of these occupations each person would be able to do, given their education and training level.

Here are three of the central findings:

The more occupations people can do, the more likely they were to say they would work past 65.

Workers over 60 with a higher capacity to work said they would be more likely to remain employed even after 70.

One in four of the retirees with a very high capacity for work would consider “unretiring” and returning to the labor force. …Learn More

Photo from inside a factory

Hypertension, Arthritis? Keep Working!

The growing list of effective medications available for managing a variety of chronic conditions seem to be changing the way we work and retire.

For example, older workers at one company who suffer from arthritis and high blood pressure – two relatively easy conditions to treat – are able to keep working just like their healthier co-workers, according to a new study from a research consortium funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

In fact, the two specific groups in this study – employees with hypertension or a combination of arthritis and hypertension – actually worked an average of four to 10 months longer, respectively, than the healthy workers. This counterintuitive finding might owe to the fact that people with chronic conditions are motivated to work longer to maintain their employer health insurance. Another possibility is that, because of their condition, they pay closer attention to their overall health and take better care of themselves.

The researchers, who are from Stanford University’s Medical School and Princeton University, had the advantage of access to nearly 4,700 employees’ detailed medical records, which allowed them to track how their health progressed over an 18-year period, until they retired.

A limitation of the study is that the employees aren’t representative of the general working population. They were mainly white men employed in Alcoa smelters and fabrication plants around the country. And because it was very common for them to join the company in their 20s and qualify for a 30-year pension, their average retirement age was only 58.

But older workers in a wide variety of professions are reckoning with the need to work longer than they might have planned so they can afford to retire.

A chronic medical condition doesn’t have to be a barrier to working as long – or even longer – than everyone else. …Learn More

Pre-Retirement Debt is Rising Over Time

Chart showing Boomer debt ratiosBaby boomers have a lot more debt than their parents did.

By all accounts, the parents were in pretty good shape for retirement because they held their debt levels down to a mere 4 percent of their total assets in the years immediately before retiring – ages 56 to 61 – according to a new study.

At those same ages, the typical baby boomers’ debt has ranged from 19 percent to 23 percent of their assets, thanks in large part to the 2008 drop in stock portfolios and in the housing market.

Generational trends in debt levels are difficult to analyze, and the issue is far from settled among researchers. This study notes, for example, that the situation might not be as grim as the rising debt indicates.

The broad numbers hide the positive step boomers have taken – just as earlier generations did – to reduce their debt as they moved through their 50s. And although the younger boomers have fewer assets than older boomers had at that stage of life, the younger boomers are also working to improve their finances by paying down their mortgages at an accelerated pace.

But the analysis also uncovered another troubling trend for the baby boomers born in the middle of the demographic wave: about 10 percent of them had more debt during their late 50s than their assets were worth. When their parents were that age, some of the most indebted of them still had more assets than debts.

In his study, Jason Fichtner of Johns Hopkins University compared debt-to-asset ratios for five different age groups, starting with the boomers’ parents, who were born during the Great Depression, and running through the people who were born toward the tail end of the baby boom. The chart above is a financial snapshot of rising debt-to-asset ratios for each group when they were between ages 56 and 61. …Learn More

US Life Span Lags Other Rich Countries

Table of Life Expectancy in 2016Life expectancy for 65-year-olds in the United States is less than in France, Japan, Spain, Italy, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany.

Fifty years ago, we ranked third.

First, some perspective: during that time, the average U.S. life span increased dramatically, from age 79 to 84. The problem is that we haven’t kept up with the gains made by the nine other industrialized countries, which has caused our ranking to slide.

A troubling undercurrent in this trend is that women, more than men, are creating the downdraft, according to an analysis by the Center for Retirement Research. The life expectancy of 65-year-old American women is 2½ years less than women in the other countries. The difference for men is only about a year.

The center’s researchers identified the main culprits holding us back: circulatory diseases, respiratory conditions, and diabetes.  Smoking and obesity are the two major risk factors fueling these trends.

Americans used to consume more cigarettes per capita than anyone in the world. That’s no longer true. In recent years, the U.S. smoking rate has fallen sharply, resulting in fewer deaths from high blood pressure, stroke, and other circulatory diseases.

But women haven’t made as much progress as men.  Men’s smoking peaked back in the mid-1960s, and by around 1990, the delayed benefits of fewer and fewer smokers started improving men’s life expectancy. Smoking didn’t peak for women until the late-1970s, and their death rate for smoking-related diseases continued to rise for many years after that, slowing the gains in U.S. life expectancy overall.  More recently, this pattern has reversed so that women are now beginning to see some improvement from reduced smoking.

Obesity is a growing problem across the developed world. But in this country, the obesity rate is increasing two times faster than in the other nine countries. Nearly 40 percent of American adults today are obese, putting them at risk of type-2 diabetes and circulatory and cardiovascular diseases. …Learn More

Medicaid Expansion has Saved Lives

The recent rise in Americans’ death rates is a crisis for the lowest-earning men. They are dying about 15 years younger than the highest-earners due to everything from obesity to opioids. Women with the lowest earnings are living 10 years less.

But healthcare policy is doing what it’s supposed to in the states that expanded their Medicaid coverage to more low-income people under the Affordable Care Act (ACA): helping to stem the tide by making low-income people healthier.

An analysis by the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California, Davis, found that death rates have declined in the states that chose to expand Medicaid coverage. The study focused on people between ages 55 and 64 – not quite old enough to enroll in Medicare.

Graph of number of lives saved Medicaid has “saved lives in the states where [expansion] occurred,” UC-Davis researchers found. They estimated that 15,600 more lives would have been saved nationwide if every state had covered more of their low-income residents.

This is one of many studies that takes advantage of the ability to compare what is happening to residents’ well-being in states that expanded their Medicaid programs with the states that did not.  Progress has come on many fronts.

In expansion states, rural hospitals, which are struggling nationwide, have had more success in keeping their doors open. By covering more adults, more low-income children have been brought into the program, which one study found reduces their applications for federal disability benefits as adults. And low-income residents’ precarious finances improved in states where Medicaid expansion reduced their healthcare costs. …Learn More

Photo of scissors cutting a career

Denied Disability, Yet Unemployed

Most people have already left their jobs before applying for federal disability benefits. The problem for older people is that when they are denied benefits, only a small minority of them ever return to work.

Applicants to Social Security’s disability program who quit working do so for a combination of reasons. They are already finding it difficult to do their jobs, and leaving bolsters their case. However, when older people are denied benefits after the lengthy application process, it’s very challenging to return to the labor force, where ageism and outdated skills further complicate a disabled person’s job search.

A new study looked at 805 applicants – average age 59 – who cleared step 1 of Social Security’s 5-step evaluation process: they had worked long enough to be eligible for benefits under the disability program’s rules. The researchers at Mathematica were particularly interested in the applicants rejected either in steps 4 and 5.

Of the initial 805 applicants, 125 did not make it past step 2, because they failed to meet the basic requirement of having a severe impairment. In step 3, 133 applicants were granted benefits relatively quickly because they have very severe medical conditions, such as advanced cancer or congestive heart failure.

The rest moved on to steps 4 and 5. Their applications required the examiners to make a judgment as to whether the person is still capable of working in two specific situations. In step 4, Social Security denies benefits if an examiner determines someone is able to perform the same kind of work he’s done in the past. In step 5, benefits are denied if someone can do a different job that is still appropriate to his age, education, and work experience.

In total, just under half of the 805 applicants in the study did not receive disability benefits. …Learn More

Nursing Homes: Why They Cost So Much

One of retirees’ biggest fears is that they will have to go into a nursing home. This fear isn’t just psychological – it’s also financial.

Roughly half of older Americans will find themselves in a nursing home at some point, according to a 2015 estimate. These stays usually last months, but sometimes years, and the costs add up quickly for those who have to pay for them out of their own pockets.

At an average price of at least $225 per day for a semi-private room, a nursing home stay can put a big dent in retirees’ savings.

A new study in the journal Medical Care Research and Review on how much seniors pay out-of-pocket for facilities in eight states – California, Florida, Georgia, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, and Vermont – found that prices across the board are rising at about two times the general inflation rate.

Some of the fastest price increases are in California and Oregon – 5 percent to 6 percent a year. There is also a large disparity between high- and low-cost states: the price tag for a typical New York nursing home is more than double the cost in Texas.

Yet little is understood about what’s behind the disparities. In this study, conducted for the Retirement Research Consortium, the researchers begin to uncover some of the things that determine whether an individual happens to live in a high-cost state.

One factor affecting the prices is the competitiveness of each nursing home market, which works in ways one would expect. When a small number of operators dominate in local markets, they can charge more. The results also suggest that prices are higher in markets where limited competition is combined with a high demand for beds.

Another important factor is who owns the nursing homes, and each state has a different mix of private and non-profit chains and smaller operators. For-profit companies own about 70 percent of U.S. nursing homes. More than half of the for-profit facilities are chains, and these chains charge the lowest prices.

The non-profit chains are the most expensive. Their prices, adjusted for staffing levels, location and other facility-level factors, are about 6.6 percent more than the for-profit chains – or about $4,160 more annually – the study found. …Learn More