Hard Labor Spells Earlier Retirement

Men with the most physically demanding jobs retire earlier – by choice or due to exhaustion or chronic pain – increasing the financial pressures facing this segment of the workforce once they reach old age.

The retirement age for most Americans continues to float upward as people delay the date so they can sock more money away or boost the eventual size of their Social Security checks.  But that’s often not a viable option for people with highly physical jobs, such as the 1,500 Alcoa plant workers in a new study. 

The retirement pattern for Alcoa workers studied by the Stanford University School of Medicine suggests that men in manufacturing jobs face a unique set of retirement issues related to the physicality of their work.  Most of the workers in Stanford’s 2001-2008 study were employed in aluminum smelters.  The study found that men in these demanding jobs retired, on average, at age 60 and six months – a full year earlier than their male Alcoa coworkers with jobs such as floor inspector or shipping clerk. 

“Those with heavier jobs retire earlier.  Those with more sedentary jobs retire later,” Sepideh Modrek, a Stanford medical school lecturer, said at the recent Retirement Research Consortium conference, where she presented the results of her working paper.  [The Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog, is a consortium member.] 

As further evidence of this trend, workers who transitioned into less demanding jobs, due to injury or other health issues, were able to work longer, she said. 

Retiring around age 60 is actually a luxury today.  It’s important to keep in mind when considering this study that Alcoa jobs are union jobs.  Union membership nationwide – and access to generous union pensions – has steadily declined over the past few decades.  But physically demanding jobs have not disappeared

“A lot of people are saying 70 is the new 60,” Modrek said.  “I want us to take a deep breath and think about that for a second.”

Modrek was interested in the implications for policies that would increase the eligibility ages for Social Security.  Some workers in highly physical jobs may need to ramp down to easier assignments as they age, if possible.

Past research in this area reached conflicting conclusions about the impact of physical work on the retirement date.  But this study was distinguished by its novel data set.  Modrek’s coauthor was Mark Cullen, an Alcoa adviser who gained access to the proprietary data in order to study the impact of work on this specific type of worker.  

The data also were unique because they included independent ratings of job difficulty from health and safety managers on factory floors, rather than workers’ subjective views of the difficulty of their jobs – workers tend to overstate how demanding their jobs are.  The study controlled for the fact that the healthiest workers gravitate to physically demanding work and for wage differences.

Full disclosure:  The research cited in this post was funded by a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) through the Retirement Research Consortium, which also funds this blog.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the blog’s author and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA or any agency of the federal government.

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