Retire early? Some jobs give you little choice

Conventional wisdom assumes that blue-collar workers retire earlier than white-collar workers, given the physical toll manual labor can take. But a new study from Boston College's Center for Retirement Research (CRR) shows it may not be so simple.

The CRR researchers confirmed that blue-collar workers are more likely to retire early compared to white-collar workers, but they found some key exceptions. For instance, older workers are more easily able to continue working in certain occupations that are classified as blue collar, such as food server and chef. Also, certain white-collar jobs identified by the study have demands that increase the odds that an older worker will retire sooner, such as child-care worker, licensed practical nurse and police detective.

But CRR researchers went beyond simply classifying jobs as blue collar or white collar. They analyzed four categories of abilities people need to perform most occupations: cognitive, psychomotor, physical and sensory. This is what they discovered:

  • The extent to which cognitive abilities decline with age depends on whether the occupation benefits from accumulated knowledge or not. "Crystallized" ability, or knowledge (such as verbal skills or your vocabulary), tends to accumulate well into your 60s and 70s. As a result, workers who rely on knowledge are more able to continue working into their later years. Examples include sales representatives, office administrators and bookkeepers. On the other hand, "fluid" abilities such as episodic memory (recall of specific events), working memory and reaction time start declining in one's 20s or 30s, and workers in occupations that rely on these fluid abilities may be inclined to retire earlier. Examples include electrical engineers, police detectives, child care workers, licensed practical nurses and designers.
  • Psychomotor abilities that generally don't decline significantly during a typical career include control movement, such as the ability to walk in a coordinated way. However, fine manipulative abilities and reaction time and speed typically decline as workers approach retirement age, which affects such occupations such as seamstresses, truck drivers and assemblers.
  • Physical abilities include strength, endurance, flexibility and coordination. While strength and endurance can decline with age, these abilities can be maintained by keeping active and fit. Flexibility is harder to maintain with age, so workers in occupations such as plumbing and roofing may find it more difficult to continue working into an older age. Balance and coordination also tend to decline with age.
  • Sensory abilities such as vision, hearing and speech can play essential roles in some occupations. Often these abilities can be maintained well into your 60s and 70s with the help of glasses and hearing aids. This is good news for occupations like sales representatives, office administrators, supervisors, pharmacists and teachers.

This research contains important implications for policymakers who say because people are living longer, we need to raise Social Security's normal retirement age (now 66, increasing to 67 for those born in 1960 and later). While some occupations might accommodate people working later in life, many others are too demanding for people to work in at these ages. This topic is complicated further because lower-income workers haven't experienced the same lifespan gains in recent decades as higher income workers have.

What does this mean to you? Of course, several factors influence a decision about when to retire, including your health and your spouse's health; employment shocks; whether you have dependent children or parents; the availability of valuable pension, savings and health insurance benefits; your spouse's employment status; and so on. The ability to continue working at your occupation is just one important factor, and even here significant variance exists among individuals.

You'll want to be aware of the physical and cognitive demands of your occupation, then estimate how long you might be able to continue working at it. One simple test is to observe how many people you see working at your occupation into their 50s, 60s and 70s.

If people in your occupation tend to retire or leave the field early, you may want to plan ahead for the day when you may no longer be able to work but may still have many decades of life left. Possible strategies to plan for a longer retirement include earning valuable pension benefits, accumulating sufficient retirement savings, being prepared to reduce your living expenses (such as paying off your mortgage) and being ready to change and retrain to a less demanding occupation.

These considerations provide one more compelling example of the wisdom of planning ahead.