Significant numbers of older Americans endure difficult working conditions putting them at risk, according to a new Economic Policy Institute report. Roughly half of older workers ages 50–70 experience physically demanding jobs (50.3%), environmental hazards (54.2%), difficult schedules (53.7%), high-pressure jobs (46.1%), or limited autonomy over work decisions (45.9%). Further, one in seven older workers (14.1%) are on the receiving end of abusive and violent behavior.
The report’s findings—based on EPI analysis of RAND Corporation’s 2018 American Working Conditions Survey—come amid a retirement crisis in the United States. Millions of people are entering their retirement years with insufficient savings to cover basic expenses and medical bills. In response, some policymakers and researchers have proposed that older Americans could delay retirement to increase their savings. This solution, however, overlooks the large group of older Americans who work in difficult conditions. Working longer is not a viable answer to the retirement crisis—instead, policymakers must ensure workers can afford to retire when they need to.
“Many Americans endure physically taxing, dangerous, and stressful jobs, often which don’t even pay enough to allow them to ever retire,” said Monique Morrissey, EPI economist and report author. “It is deeply wrong and unrealistic to expect older workers with onerous or hazardous jobs to keep working into advanced old age. A better way to close the retirement income gap is to expand Social Security benefits and guarantee that all jobs come with benefits that lead to a secure retirement.”
The report also compares working conditions between older workers and prime-age workers (defined as ages 35–49). Prime-age workers are slightly more likely to have physically demanding jobs (55.5%) or be exposed to hazardous environments (55.0%) than older workers, but difficult working conditions combined with declining health put older workers at greater risk for serious injuries.
This report is a companion to the Older Workers and Retirement Chartbook, a joint project of the Economic Policy Institute and the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. Among other findings, the chartbook documents that 31.6% of workers 55–64 and 24.1% of workers 65 and older have physically demanding jobs based on data from the Health and Retirement Study. This report builds on these findings using a different survey (the American Working Conditions Survey) and a broader array of working conditions.
Today at 2:00 p.m. Eastern, EPI will host a virtual event focused on challenges facing older workers, including difficult working conditions and inability to retire. Register or watch the livestream here.