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Delayed Retirement Increases Inequality

Friday, March 30, 2018

With defined-benefit pensions a thing of the past for most retirees, many older Americans are working longer to allow their retirement savings and Social Security benefits to grow. But will the rising labor force participation of older Americans result in greater income inequality? It already is, according to an analysis by Richard W. Johnson of the Urban Institute. His study examines the growing economic polarization between older Americans healthy enough to delay retirement and continue to work, and older Americans whose poor health prevents them from working longer.

Analyzing data from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal survey of Americans aged 50 or older, Johnson's analysis compared the health and economic status of people aged 63 to 65 in 2014 with their counterparts in 1996. Over the time period, the health of people in their early sixties worsened...

  • A larger share of 63-to-65-year-olds reported having health-related work limitations in 2014 (31.8%) than in 1996 (28.5%).
  • The trend is most pronounced among the least educated – those who never attended college. Among 63-to-65-year-olds who never attended college, 42.3% had health-related work limitations in 2014, up from 33.6% in 1996. 
  • Among 63-to-65-year-olds who had attended college, 25.5% had health-related work limitations, up from 19.6% in 1996.

Older Americans with health-related work limitations are falling behind as the healthy work longer and add to their retirement incomes, Johnson finds. Between 1996 and 2014, he says, gains in real, median household income among people in their early sixties were limited to those in robust health.

“As older adults have delayed retirement and worked longer, the impact of health status in late working life on retirement income has grown,” Johnson concludes. “These finding are particularly concerning as evidence mounts that health status at midlife and older ages is worsening and health disparities by income and education are growing.”

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