Americans are working longer but aren’t as healthy

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Americans born in 1960 will be able to start collecting their full Social Security retirement check at the age of 67—two years later than their parents—because of a change in the federal retirement age enacted in 1983.

But today’s pre-retirement generation already has more health issues and health-related limits than prior generations did when they were in their late 50s.

The findings suggest that today’s older workers will face more challenges than their predecessors as they continue to work, seek work, apply for Social Security disability payments, or try to retire on other income over the next decade.

“…younger cohorts are facing more burdensome health issues, even as they have to wait until an older age to retire, so they will have to do so in poorer health.”

The findings also have implications for any proposals to change the Social Security retirement age, pushing it higher for people now in their 50s and below in order to stretch the federal budget.

“Other research has found similar trends in the health of Americans who are now in the 50s and 60s, but this is the first study to look specifically at groups, or cohorts, of Americans by Social Security retirement age, which has specific policy implications,” says HwaJung Choi, research assistant professor of general medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and lead author of the study in Health Affairs.

“We found that younger cohorts are facing more burdensome health issues, even as they have to wait until an older age to retire, so they will have to do so in poorer health,” says coauthor Robert Schoeni, an economist and demographer.

Last year, Choi and Schoeni published a paper looking at health-related limitations among people who were in their late 50s and 60s from 1998 to 2012, that showed that while trends were stable, those with less education and more economic issues related to the Great Recession had worse health.

Across the decades

The new paper used data from the NIA-funded Health and Retirement Study based at ISR, and from the National Health Interview Survey that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention run.

Both studies go back decades, and provide in-depth data from people of different ages—making it possible to see how different age cohorts were doing at different times.

For the current study, researchers grouped older Americans into five birth cohorts: those who could receive their full Social Security benefits at 65 because they were born in 1937 or earlier, those born during 1938-1942 who could claim benefits sometimes during the year they turned 65, those born between 1943 and 1954 who could claim at age 66, those born between 1955 and 1959 who can claim full benefits somewhere between ages 66 and 67, and those born in 1960 to 1962, who are the first group to have to wait until age 67 to collect their full Social Security benefit.

The findings show:

  • People born later, who have to wait longer to receive their full Social Security benefits, tend to have higher rates of poor cognition, such as memory and thinking ability, in their 50s than the earlier cohort groups had at a similar age.
  • When people in the latest-born birth cohort were asked at around age 50 to rate their own health, more of them said it was fair or poor—compared with lower percentages in the middle three birth cohorts when they were around 50.
  • The later-born groups had higher percentages of people who had at least one limitation on their ability to perform a basic daily living task by themselves, such as shopping for groceries, taking medications, or getting out of bed.
  • There were no strong differences between the groups in physical function, such as being able to climb a flight of stairs without resting, lifting 10 pounds, or walking several blocks.
  • There were stark differences in health between people with different levels of education, echoing what other studies have shown. For instance, about 25 percent of people who had to wait until age 66 to claim full benefits and had less than 12 years of education reported at least one health-related life limitation when they were in their mid-50s. But among those who had more than 12 years of education and were in the same claiming group (age 66), only about 7 percent had at least one such limitation. Those whose education had stopped at high school graduation were in the middle.

Making inequality worse?

Social Security retirement age changes took place when the people who are now in their 50s and 60s were only in their 20s and 30s. At that time, demographers predicted that they were likely to live longer on average than their parents’ generations.

“Now they are retiring and we know what their health is like—and it’s not better.”

“They were focusing on life expectancy, not morbidity, and implicitly assuming that improvements in mortality would be accompanied by similar improvements in health or morbidity,” Choi says.

“Now they are retiring and we know what their health is like—and it’s not better. In fact, some aspects of their health are worse than for the people who came before them,” Schoeni says.

“As policymakers talk of making the retirement age even later, these findings suggest that to fully understand the benefits and costs of such a policy, we must realize that raising the retirement age may further exacerbate the inequality between cohorts born only a few years apart, because the younger ones may find it more challenging to work beyond age 67.”

Among those who rely on Social Security for most or all of their retirement income, education levels tend to be lower, and their pre-retirement occupations tend to involve more physical demands, making it more difficulty to work to an older age. Applications for Social Security disability benefits may also rise among this group, putting even more demands on the overall Social Security budget.

Health can also make a major difference in individuals’ decisions to actually stop working once they reach their Social Security retirement age. Many people want or need to keep working for pay after they start collecting Social Security, and some studies have suggested that working can be beneficial for health. But if their health is poor they may not be able to.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funded the work.

Source: University of Michigan