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Working Longer Is Losing Traction for Less Educated and Black Americans

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What You Need to Know

  • While the average American worker can work into their 70s, the average doesn't tell the whole story, according to the Center for Retirement Research.
  • Rising rates of mortality and incarceration in some groups and a leveling off of educational gains are slowing the growth of working life expectancy.
  • This could impede efforts to get people to work longer.

With Social Security’s full retirement age pushed to 66 years (and 67 for those born in 1960 and later), it makes sense that people have been working longer. Research has found that just a few extra months in the workforce can greatly improve retirement security.

But for many Americans — especially among Black workers and those with less education — staying on the job longer isn’t an option. Since 2010, growth in working life expectancies has stalled or reversed in these groups, according to a new paper by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

The paper, “Are Older Workers Capable of Working Longer?” by researchers Laura D. Quinby and Gal Wettstein, says this is a “concerning” trend and “while working life expectancy has improved among the more highly educated, lower-educated individuals — with the exception of Black women — have experienced stagnation.

“This pattern suggests that calls for older workers to delay retirement, which have proved successful over the past couple of decades, may be less fruitful going forward.”

Why the Slowdown?

There are several reasons for the changing trend, the researchers state. One is that the rise in education levels “has largely played out.” Another, especially pertaining to the Black population, is rising incarceration rates, especially among middle-aged men.

But perhaps a key reason is the mortality rate among the working-age population. The rise in life expectancy was largely due to gains in the older population, the paper states. However, new data suggests a decline in prime-age life expectancy for less-educated whites.

According to the study, life expectancy at age 50 rose to 29.8 years for men in 2018 (versus 28.6 years in 2006) and to 33.6 years for women in 2018 (versus 32.5 years in 2006). The study noted other data indicated the average person could work until his or her early 70s, but the authors note that “the average does not tell the full story.”

A deeper dive showed that those with low education levels had a drop in working life expectancy at age 50 between 2006 and 2018. For less educated white men, it fell by 0.5 years and for less educated white women, it fell by 0.3 years. Compare this with highly educated whites: For men it rose by 1.2 years, and for women it rose by 1.4 years.

(The authors defined “low education” and “high education” in relation to the median education level for each demographic group.)

The difference in working life expectancy at age 50 between 2006 and 2018 fell by 1.4 years for less educated Black men and rose by 0.4 years for less educated Black women. For highly educated Blacks, the working life expectancy age grew for men by 0.9 years, while that of highly educated Black women grew by 0.6 years.

“In terms of retirement security, this pattern is clearly a step back for low-education workers, since the inability to work to a later age is now accompanied by a need to finance a longer retirement,” the study notes.

According to the authors’ analysis:

  • More than half of less educated Black men who are capable of working at age 62 will be incapable of working to full retirement age.
  • Working until age 70 is even more in doubt. Overall, 29% of men and 22% of women working at age 62 will not be able to work to 70. That number jumps to 44% of less educated white men (vs. 17% of highly educated white men) and 76% of less educated Black men (vs. 41% of highly educated Black men).
  • Some 33% of less educated white women (vs. 13% of highly educated white women) who can work at 62 will not be able to work at 70. Meanwhile, 63% of less educated Black women (vs. 28% of highly educated Black women) able to work at 62 will be unable to at 70.

The authors conclude that any working life expectancy gains were driven mostly by high-education groups (except for less educated women). This means a large share of those with less education will not be able to work until full retirement age, a problem that is especially acute in less-educated Black men, the authors note.