Posts Tagged "work"

Imagining the End of The Age of Labor

The tension between technology and work is at least as old as the economics profession itself. A question some people are asking now is: if computers run by artificial intelligence can do the job of humans, will work disappear someday?

Two economists are proposing a couple different scenarios in a new paper that is part science fiction and part mathematical models. In one scenario, lower-paid workers who are not highly valued by society – say, McDonald’s hamburger flippers – are more readily replaced by computers than a scientist searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. This will drive down wages for a larger and larger segment of the lower-paid labor force.

In a second sci-fi scenario, machines run by artificial intelligence, or AI, will ultimately be able to do any worker’s job. In that world, work “would cease to play the central role that it currently plays in our society,” the researchers predict. A computer, they muse, could even stand in for a judge. Farfetched? An AI judge might be superior if it “make[s] more accurate and humane judgments than humans, leaving behind the noise, discrimination and biases that have plagued our justice system.”

There are a host of reasons to doubt work will disappear. The economists who reject this worst-case scenario argue that technology is not job-crushing but job-creating. Machines, they say, free up workers from one type of job but open up new opportunities. Only the nature of work changes. It does not disappear. After World War II, for example, new industrial technologies created jobs that lured farmers into the cities. Artificial intelligence shouldn’t be any different.

The authors of this new paper do concede that what they call the End of Labor is far in the future. Supercomputers capable of the most sophisticated AI are extraordinarily expensive. It seems more plausible that jobs involving simple, repetitive tasks will be the ones increasingly replaced by machines. This has already started happening as robots have moved onto factory floors.

But if workers of all types are eventually replaced by machines, how would they buy their groceries, cell phones, and shoes? Something would have to be done to replace their earnings and “avoid mass misery” and “political instability,” the researchers say. They propose a universal basic income. …Learn More

Parents Work Less After Kids Leave Home

When children grow up and become financially independent, how do parents adjust their finances? Are they finally spending money on themselves? Saving more for retirement? Paying down debt?

No one has come up with a convincing answer yet. Especially puzzling is that past research has shown that parents seem to reduce their consumption after the adult children move out. Yet there’s no evidence that much of the extra money is going into 401(k)s. So what’s going on?

A new study for the first time finds a missing puzzle piece: parents, freed from the obligation to support their children, are choosing to work less.

Parents work one to two hours less per week after their adult children leave home for good, according to researchers at the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Retirement Research.

Consistent with this finding, their household income declines roughly 4 percent because they’re working fewer hours or finding less demanding jobs with lower pay.

Reaching this conclusion required a series of steps. First, the researchers broadened the definitions of saving and consumption used in earlier studies to see if that shed any light on the issue. Finally, they looked at the parents’ decisions about work.

In the past, the estimates of saving had largely been confined to putting money in 401(k)s. Perhaps something could be learned by counting paying off a mortgage or other debts as a form of saving. But the researchers still found no evidence parents are paying their debts off faster after the kids leave.

So where is that extra money going? …Learn More

exit door

Disability Overpayments Discourage Work

About one in five people on federal disability has some type of job, but the government limits how much they can earn without jeopardizing their cash benefits.

The Social Security Administration wants disability beneficiaries to hold down a job if they can. But when they earn more than the allowed limit in a given month – $1,310 in 2021 – the government sometimes ends up overpaying them for benefits that should’ve been withheld that month. This usually occurs because workers forget to notify the agency they had started a job or fail to provide their earnings information in a timely way.

When the mistake is discovered, Social Security sends a notice asking that the overpaid benefits be returned in the form of a cash payment or a reduction in future disability checks. But the repayments, which usually span several months, are a lot of money – around $9,000 – for a financially vulnerable population.

The problem, according to a Mathematica study forthcoming in the journal Contemporary Economic Policy, is that some people, soon after receiving a notice, reduce their hours or stop working altogether. One beneficiary described the repayment requests as a “penalty for working.”

In an analysis of an SSA database that tracks overpayments, the researchers examined the impact of the notices on working disability recipients who received them between 2007 and 2014. Six months prior to receiving a notice, 58 percent were employed and earning over the limit.

This employment rate declined gradually each month, presumably due to natural attrition. But the researchers find that the drop in the rate accelerated in the month they received the overpayment notice and in the following month, falling by 8 percent over that two-month period. About half of that decline was a response to the notices.

Leaving a job conflicts with Social Security’s goal of encouraging beneficiaries to maintain at least part-time work and improve their overall well-being – and if they have a milder disability, eventually return to the labor force full-time and end their reliance on benefits. …Learn More

Not Everyone Can Delay their Retirement

Retirement experts encourage baby boomers to hang on to their jobs as long as possible to boost their monthly Social Security checks and add to their retirement savings. If they can delay retirement to age 70, they have good odds of maintaining their standard of living.

That isn’t always possible, however, for the baby boomers confronting disabling physical impairments or health problems. Add to that the generally declining health of the older population over the past 20 years.

Working to 67But a new study has revealed a deep socioeconomic divide. More-educated older workers are actually able to work longer than they did 15 years ago, while less-educated older workers – and Black men in particular – are mostly losing ground.

To estimate the changes in working life expectancy for various groups of older workers, Laura Quinby and Gal Wettstein at the Center for Retirement Research considered three factors: life expectancy overall, how long the workers can expect to remain free of a disability, and the rates of institutionalization in prisons and long-term care facilities. The incarceration rate is relevant, because the young adult men who received the longer prison sentences that started being imposed a couple of decades ago are now in their 50s and 60s.

Between 2006 and 2018, working life expectancy increased by about one year for older Black and white workers in the top half of the educational ranking. This makes sense because more educated people tend to be healthier and have seen stronger gains in their longevity.

But working life expectancy declined in the bottom half of the educational ranking for Black men and for white men and women. The exception is less-educated Black women – they have seen a small increase in working life expectancy, along with a more substantial increase in longevity.

The researchers also estimated the share of each group who, at age 62, could feasibly work until age 67, which would lock in their full retirement age benefit every month from Social Security, and until 70, which would provide them with their maximum monthly benefit.

A comparison of two extremes – more-educated white men and less-educated Black men – dramatizes the divide. …Learn More

Elderly couple at a window

Retirement Researchers to Meet Aug. 5-6

The pandemic will be on the marquee at this year’s annual meeting of retirement and disability researchers.

COVID-19 has encroached on every aspect of older Americans’ lives, from their day-to-day work and home life to their retirement planning. Researchers will present studies on three impacts of the pandemic in presentations funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

The event will be held over two days, Thursday and Friday, Aug. 5 and 6, from noon to 4 p.m. The event will be virtual again this year and anyone can sign up to attend for free.

The first study on the agenda will explore the pandemic’s impact on older workers’ ability or willingness to work and on their retirement decisions. And for the adults who lost their jobs during COVID-19’s economic downturn, a second study will explain whether the slump will affect their future Social Security benefits. In the final study relating to the pandemic, researchers will assess whether the relief bills passed by Congress helped older people.

Other prominent topics of discussion include retirement planning and retirees’ financial security. These will include new findings on workers’ decisions about saving, retirees’ decisions about spending, and the financial adjustments couples make after their children leave home.

The final major topic is federal benefits for people with disabilities. The presentations here include the relationship between the benefits and two government programs: food stamps and workers compensation insurance.

Summaries of the working papers will be posted online for the meetings. …Learn More

Hard for People on SSDI to Resume Work

Man sanding woodThe federal government runs numerous small-scale experiments across the country to explore ways to help people on Social Security disability ease back into work to reduce the benefits being paid.

In a recent webinar, researchers discussed the extreme challenges of designing programs that are effective, given the inherent disadvantages – from the disabling condition itself and discrimination to having less education – that people with disabilities face in the job market.

After close examination of several programs, the researchers found that the primary goals of most demonstration programs are very difficult to achieve: reducing disability benefits or increasing the earnings of people on disability who have sporadic or part-time work. But they also suggested that the programs would be deemed more successful if policymakers would broaden the goals to include the improved well-being of people with disabilities.

To increase their employment, Kilolo Kijakazi, deputy commissioner of retirement and disability policy at the U.S. Social Security Administration, said it’s critical to first address inequities in the job market.

Research shows that many people on disability express an interest in working but face multiple barriers. Employers aren’t always willing to make the workplace accommodations needed to hire them. People on disability also tend to be older than most workers and may face age discrimination. Others have been discouraged by past work experiences, and finding transportation to and from a job is often a challenge.

Although a minority of all Americans with disabilities are working, the 2020 unemployment rate among people with a disability who are either working or looking for a job was 12.6 percent. However, unemployment among Black Americans with disabilities was 16.3 percent. The rates were also very high for Asian-Americans and Latinos with disabilities –  15.7% and 16.8 percent, respectively.

“We need to develop policies and programs that address these inequities,” Kijakazi said.

Robert Moffitt at Johns Hopkins University analyzed several back-to-work programs, including the use of counselors and financial incentives. He found that the programs are extremely difficult to implement well and that participation is fairly low.

Although they do help some individuals, he concluded, “Most of the efforts to increase employment, earnings and labor force engagement of [disability] beneficiaries have been disappointing.” …Learn More

Photo of a pill bottle

Opioids and Workers with Disabilities

Everyone knows about the dangers of opioid addiction. But prescription opioids can be useful to people with physical disabilities if they ease their pain so they can hold down a job.

A new study finds that this might be occurring in certain parts of the country where more opioid prescriptions are written.

But this finding is at odds with other evidence in the study that these same areas also see increased enrollment in Social Security’s disability program. A possible increase in employment is puzzling, since this program has strict limits on how much people can earn.

Adibah Abdulhadi at the University of Wisconsin reconciled her seemingly contradictory findings this way: some people with disabilities, including some who rely on opioids, may be working more – but if they are, they’re mostly in part-time jobs.

Under Social Security’s benefit rules, workers on disability can keep their benefits if their earnings do not exceed the program limit of $1,260 per month in 2020. A part-time job can be a way to stay below this income threshold.

The impact of opioid use on the labor market was analyzed on a county-by-county basis. In counties with higher opioid prescription activity, the unemployment rate fell by eight-tenths of 1 percentage point over the study’s four-year period, though this result wasn’t conclusive.

The decline was also confined to the most urban counties, which tend to have more robust job markets than rural areas and also more employers that can accommodate workers’ disabilities. Strikingly, the higher prescription activity was also linked to an increase in part-time employment.

While the impact of prescription activity on employment is inconclusive, the impact on disability is clear. “Greater use of opioids consistently leads to greater use” of disability insurance, Abdulhadi said.

To read this study, authored by Adibah Abdulhadi, see “The Effects of Opioids on Labor Market Outcomes and Use of Social Security Disability Insurance.”Learn More