The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) today reported a 3.5% unemployment rate for workers ages 55 and older in January, a decrease of 0.1 percentage points from December.
The low headline unemployment rate hides a racial gap in the physical job demands faced by older workers. At all income levels, older black workers are more likely to experience physical demands at work than older white workers, including requirements to lift heavy loads, stoop, kneel or crouch during most of the workday.
The racial gap, which exists at all wage levels, is largest among older low wage workers. The gap among those earning less than $22 an hour is 22 percentage points, with 62% of Blacks in physically demanding jobs compared to 40% of Whites. For workers earning between $22 and $40 an hour, the gap is 11 percentage points, with 43% of Blacks are in physically demanding jobs compared to 32% of Whites. The racial gap persists even for higher earners. For those in the top 20% of the earnings distribution making more than $40 an hour, the gap is 8 percentage points, with 24% of older Blacks are in physically demanding jobs, compared to 16% of older Whites.
This persistent racial gap means that proposals to increase Social Security’s Early Retirement Age would require black workers to continue to do physically demanding work at older ages. To enable all workers to retire - whether due to physical necessity or choice - policymakers should both expand Social Security and create Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRAs). GRAs are are individual accounts requiring contributions from both employees and employers throughout a worker’s career. They provide a safe, effective vehicle for individuals to accumulate personal retirement savings and receive lifelong income as a supplement to Social Security.