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About 7 percent of American workers held highly physically demanding jobs in 2006, and 35 percent held highly cognitively demanding jobs. The share of the workforce in physically demanding jobs fell by about one-sixth between 1971 and 2006, while the share in cognitively demanding jobs increased by more than one-third. Stressful occupations also grew rapidly over the past 35 years. The decline in physically demanding occupations will likely improve employment prospects for older adults, but the growth in cognitive demands may limit options for some older people, especially those with limited education.
The economic burden of an aging population depends on the employment decisions of
older adults. If workers continue to retire at the relatively young ages that have become the norm
over the past generation, then the aging of the baby boomers will reduce the number of people
working and paying taxes for every older person collecting retirement and health benefits.
Workers may have to pay higher taxes to support more retirees, employers may face labor
shortages (particularly in selected industries), retirement benefits will likely be cut, and per
capita economic output will fall. However, if people choose to work longer, the economy can
produce more goods and services, boosting living standards for both workers and nonworkers
and generating additional tax revenue to fund all kinds of government services. The crucial
question, then, is whether older people will respond to the coming demographic challenges by
working longer and retiring later.
Job attributes are important factors in the retirement decision. Positions that require
heavy lifting, crouching, or stooping; standing for long periods; or other types of physically
exhausting work are generally ill-suited for older workers, who often choose to retire early from
these jobs if possible. Some older workers are forced to leave physically demanding jobs early
when they develop health problems. Cognitively demanding work may be better suited for older
people than physically demanding work, but probably not for those with limited education. Jobs
that impose constant time pressures and require fast-paced work may be considered stressful and
undesirable employment options by some older adults.
Changes over time in the nature of work have important implications for the employment
prospects of older people. Older workers may be more likely to delay retirement if work is
becoming less physically demanding. On the other hand, increases over time in work intensity
may push some workers into early retirement. Better information is needed about the current
distribution of job demands and how those demands are changing.
This report describes the job demands faced by workers today, the changes over time in
job demands, and the impact of those changes on the employability of older workers. We linked
job characteristics data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training
Administration (ETA) to the Current Population Survey (CPS) to calculate the proportion of
workers facing various types of job demands in 2006 and 1971. Employment projections were
used to estimate the prevalence of job demands in 2014 and in 2041. The job attributes that we
considered included physical demands, nonphysical demands, and difficult workplace
conditions. We also examined how job demands varied by demographic characteristics,
including gender, educational attainment, race, and age.
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