The Social Security board of trustees projects that the trust funds that pay out retirement and disability benefits will be depleted by 2035, at which time the program will only pay about 80 percent of promised benefits.
Bipartisan proposals to address Social Security’s finances frequently include a provision to raise the full retirement age (FRA), the age at which a person can claim his or her full monthly Social Security benefit, to reflect increases in life expectancy.
Supporting an increase to the FRA also means addressing the earliest eligibility age (EEA), which is currently 62. Some proposals leave the EEA at age 62 (PDF) and reduce benefits by 40 percent or more for those who claim benefits at this age. Other proposals increase the EEA in tandem with the FRA, delaying the age beneficiaries can begin receiving benefits.
Either way, without effective policies in place, raising the EEA or keeping the EEA at 62 and reducing benefits could create hardship for many older Americans.
In our new brief, we find that in either scenario, many of the existing retirement-based proposals to protect vulnerable older workers would fall short. Disability-based options—those involving the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program—may hold more promise. But more analysis is needed to explore potential changes in eligibility for disability benefits for workers in their sixties, as well as employment supports for older workers to retain their current jobs.
Many workers have to retire at 62
Overall, Americans are living longer, and most older workers can stay in the workforce past age 62—but many workers can’t. Improvements in population-wide rates of health problems have not been shared by everyone, with racial minorities and workers with limited education experiencing modest or no gains in health outcomes or life expectancies.
Although the physical demands of work have significantly declined, the share of older workers in physically demanding jobs (PDF) has only modestly declined, and the absolute number of workers in physically demanding jobs has increased. And although older workers are less likely to lose their jobs than younger workers, older workers experience worse employment outcomes than younger workers after losing a job.
SSDI does not help many older workers with serious health conditions
Should the FRA increase, the SSDI program will protect many at-risk workers who are unable to work past their early sixties. But many others will not qualify for SSDI under its current rules. Many older workers who can no longer work because of a serious health condition claim reduced early retirement benefits instead of receiving SSDI.
SSDI plays a vital role in supporting many at-risk workers. For older workers who can no longer work because of a serious health condition, policymakers could consider modifying the eligibility criteria for SSDI benefits. Simplifying the eligibility standards at age 62 could significantly expand the protection SSDI provides.
In addition to revising SSDI eligibility rules, more can be done to improve and provide employment supports. When older workers experience a serious health shock, early intervention strategies would reduce their risk of developing a work disability, becoming permanently disabled, or facing long-term unemployment that forces them to retire earlier than planned. Effective programs can better help older workers and their employers identify workplace accommodations so workers can retain their current positions.
In addition, laws to combat age discrimination could be strengthened and enforcement could be improved.
Raising the FRA and EEA pose policy and political challenges
The policy debate around the Social Security retirement age tends to focus on the FRA, which many see as important for nudging those who can continue to work to do so. But designing the right EEA policy to accompany the change may be the more difficult policy challenge.
Policymakers considering compromise plans to reform Social Security through a change in the retirement age must consider more robust options to protect workers who may need to retire in their early sixties but who have not shared in the broader gains in longevity, health, and economic security.