Giving Older Workers the Choice to Work or Retire with Dignity

Older workers do not have the means to retire, and others are working in subpar labor conditions, according to experts from the EPI.  

Older workers should be given the choice to continue working or transition to retirement, experts said in a webinar hosted by the Economic Policy Institute, but often they are not given the decision-making power.

Whether it’s coming from employers, or government programs, older workers need support when it comes to working and retirement, according to the panelists. At the moment, that type of support is lacking, and sometimes the current workplace can actively work against a comfortable retirement.

“Many older workers are stuck in these bad jobs, unable to save for retirement and are eventually forced out into poverty,” said Siavash Radpour, associate research director, ReLab at the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. “They are trapped with no way out.”

Economists and other experts tend to be biased in favor of extending work into old age, said Monique Morrissey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. She said many underestimated how many workers have difficult and even dangerous jobs.

“I think economists should be neutral about when workers retire because leisure and consumption both are ways of improving living standard, meaning retirement in this case,” said Morrissey. “We know that many older workers right now can’t afford to retire and meet basic expenses. If working longer is a response to inadequate retirement savings and benefits, the solution at least for future generations should be expanding work opportunities and retirement coverage at younger ages, rather than working longer into old age.”

Social Security

Morrissey said the most straightforward way to allow old workers to retire is to increase social security contributions and benefits. There are some who have suggested further raising Social Security’s full retirement age, which has already been increased from 65 to 67. However, such across the board benefit cut would be deeply unpopular. Social Security voters across the political spectrum have expressed that they prefer to contribute more and not receive less.

“We should listen to these voters and workers since they’re the ones doing the work,” said Morrissey.

As for older workers who do want to continue working, Rep. Don Beyer, Congressman, Virginia’s 8th District, introduced legislation to establish an Older Workers’ Bureau in November 2022.   

“We can pass the Older Workers’ Bureau Act,” Rep. Beyer said on the webinar. “It’ll establish an Older Workers’ Bureau and it will be designed to improve the working conditions and the wellbeing of older workers, as well as advance employment opportunities. … We’re researching age discrimination, wages paid to older workers, job security, among other data points. The Bureau will also conduct outreach to relevant institutions and agencies, because they all need to work together.”

Furthermore, an Older Workers’ Bureau will be able to provide legitimacy and dignity to seniors in the labor force, said Teresa Ghilarducci, director at the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis.

Widespread Support

“I speak to a lot of workers, labor unions, senior halls and they brighten up. These are people who are 70 or 50. When I say that you are supporting an Older Workers’ Bureau for the federal government it gives instant legitimacy to their role in society,” said Ghilarducci.

The director said it reminded her of what happened when the women’s Bureau was established in the 1920s. “It instantly gave status and respected dignity to these groups of workers that are pushed out or just not paid attention to,” she said.

Ultimately, the experts agreed that working Americans should be given the choice of whether they want to work or retire.

“You work your lifetime,” Radpour said. “When you’re old you deserve to work if you want to and retire if you want to. We’re not saying everyone should retire or everyone should work. We’re saying you deserve to have the choice. And the choice will empower you to have better work and better retirement.”