This Labor Day, America is at a crossroads in its approach to work and retirement. Americans are living longer and healthier lives, on average, than they did a half-century ago—and they’ll need income for more years of life. Where should this money come from? The most common policy answer over the past three decades has been: Delay retirement. Keep working.
Working to later and later ages might seem like an intuitively appealing solution to the problem of retirement security in the United States, where pensions and savings are often inadequate and the Social Security “full retirement age” keeps rising.
But delaying retirement isn’t a solution for a large and growing proportion of Americans. While it will work for some and should be encouraged for those who want to keep working, precarious working conditions, family caregiving responsibilities, poor health, age discrimination, and troubled local labor markets make it difficult or impossible for many to work into their 60s and beyond. Far from breezing through work in their 60s or 70s, many Americans struggle to stay employed in their 50s. In fact, our own research shows that only half of older US adults are steadily employed throughout their 50s—and those who lack steady employment in their 50s are much less likely to be working in their 60s. For most Americans, leaving paid work in their 50s just means having less to live on as they age.
Take the case of “Jim,” a Pennsylvania waiter in his late 50s, who spoke with sociologist Mary Gatta in her research on restaurant workers. Restaurant work is “a young man’s game—it’s hard to keep up with the physical demands,” Jim told Gatta. Racing to serve customers has left Jim with a chronic Achilles heel injury. “I don’t know how much longer I can do my job. At my restaurant everything is refillable—bread, soda, soup, salad, pasta—it’s like Whack-a-Mole. I just run my entire shift.” Jim’s health is not a refillable or renewable resource.
As Jim’s situation suggests, when we focus on how to delay retirement beyond age 65 or 70, we miss a major part of the story—the part of the story that begins at least a decade earlier in Americans’ lives. Good jobs in middle and younger ages will help ensure that more Americans can work longer. And by good jobs we mean not only fair wages and benefits related to health care and retirement, but those that extend to schedule control, worker voice and bargaining power, safe social and physical working environments, and reduced precarity and job volatility. Worker well-being is at the heart of these policies and practices.
Inequalities loom large in the working-longer landscape. Those without college degrees often face jobs with high physical demands, low wages, unpredictable schedules, and few benefits—jobs that make it hard to keep going. It’s the paradox of working longer: Those who can least afford to retire early are those who are least likely to be able to delay retirement.
At the same time, college graduates can’t take working longer or retirement security for granted either. Even well-off Americans may face health shocks, the challenges of caring for loved ones, inflexible working hours, age discrimination, or job loss, leading to early retirement and downward economic mobility in old age. Working longer is a tricky issue for many of us.
It’s obvious as soon as you say it: People can delay retirement only if they still have jobs to delay retiring from. Thus, labor policy becomes central to good retirement policy. We need to examine the kinds of changes we could make now to enhance work quality so that those in their 40s and 50s are consistently employed, allowing them to work productively into their 60s.
This perspective means recognizing that work and retirement policies are two sides of the same coin. Too often, labor force policy and retirement policy are addressed as if they were independent systems. They’re not. Policies that raise the floor under job quality should make delayed retirement a better and more practical solution for more Americans—and lead to better retirement security. Crucially, improving the conditions for delayed retirement means implementing policies that support workers of all ages, not only older workers. Both younger and older workers benefit from “good jobs” policies.
There are major movements underway to improve job quality in the United States. Updated labor policies that protect American workers’ right to organize could substantially improve working conditions. Efforts to increase minimum wages, give workers more predictable schedules, and provide paid leave for illness or family needs have seen growing momentum at the state level—and would have even broader impact if adopted at the federal level. The importance of recent legislation shouldn’t be underestimated: Investments in infrastructure, like the unprecedented investments in climate programs in the recent Inflation Reduction Act, could be transformative if the millions of jobs they generate have good pay and conditions.
And employers have their own role to play with approaches that go well beyond the typical HR wellness program. Research has shown that work redesign strategies that give employees more say in their work, rein in overwork, and build better relationships in the workplace can improve workers’ health and job satisfaction. But firms that adopt tool kits of best practices (like this tool kit one of us helped to develop) aren’t necessarily altruistic. Taking the high road when it comes to working conditions can result in better productivity and reduced turnover—benefiting employers as well as employees.
Better jobs would undoubtedly make working longer a better option for more Americans. But the other side of the coin—revamping America’s fragile retirement systems—is equally critical.
It’s long past time that policy-makers put Social Security on a secure financial footing for the future—and we don’t need to raise retirement ages even further to get there. Requiring high earners to contribute the same percentage as lower earners would be a good start. We also need automatic and universal retirement savings plans that follow workers from job to job, along with updated federal disability systems.
The next few elections are likely to determine which way the United States turns at this crossroads. Will future generations of Americans retire in a nation where good jobs are plentiful and security in old age is assured? That would really be something to celebrate on Labor Day.