Diversity & Inclusion

Millions of Older Workers in Physically Demanding Jobs

Hard Work? Patterns in Physically Demanding Labor Among Older Workers, a study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, examines the population of older workers and how raising the retirement age affects those in jobs with difficult working conditions.

The study notes that high physical demands are a major reason for “early labor-market exit among older workers.” Therefore, increasing the retirement age will likely cause many older workers to “be physically unable to extend work lives in their jobs,” likely giving them “no choice but to receive reduced benefits.” The study predicts that “an increase in the retirement age or other cuts in Social Security benefits are also likely to put a greater burden on demographic groups that have higher proportions of workers in difficult jobs.”

The study looked at three levels of physically demanding work:

  • physically demanding jobs — encompasses general physical activities, handling, and moving objects, spending significant time standing, or having any highly physically demanding work;
  • highly physically demanding jobs — can include elements such as dynamic or trunk strength, or kneeling or crouching; and
  • difficult working conditions — can include cramped workspace, labor outdoors, or exposure to abnormal temperatures, contaminants, hazardous equipment, or distracting or uncomfortable noise.

Data points about older workers from the study include:

  • in 2009, 6.5 million workers age 58 and older (about 35 %) had physically demanding jobs, 5.0 million workers age 58 and older (about 27 %) had jobs with difficult working conditions, and more than 8.5 million workers age 58 and older (about 45 %) were employed in difficult jobs;
  • 37 % of male workers age 58 and older have physically demanding jobs;
  • among those age 58 and older, difficult jobs were held by 62.4 % of Latino workers, 53.2 % of black workers, 50.5 % of Asian/Pacific American workers, and 42.6 % of white workers;
  • older workers with less than a high-school diploma had the highest share of workers (77.2%) in difficult jobs; and
  • immigrant workers age 58 and older were more likely (47.5 %) than non-immigrant workers (33 %) to have physically demanding jobs.