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Early retirement might be in your future

Your profession may thwart working longer

Think you can continue to work as you age? The answer may depend on your profession.

People in so-called blue-collar occupations are significantly more likely to retire early than those with office jobs that require less physical strength.

That reality informs debates over how to shore up finances of the Social Security system. Some experts argue that raising the retirement age would save money, yet critics counter that it would hurt lower-income workers more than higher-income employees who are better able to afford to wait to collect benefits.

Maybe so. However, a recent study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found a more nuanced reality: A surprising number of office jobs also requires skills that are highly susceptible to age-related decline. The researchers' ranking of different jobs' susceptibility was a loose predictor of when people were likely to retire early.

"If you are going to worry about one group of workers, blue collar workers are the ones to worry about, but there are some white collar workers who are going to have more difficulty, too," said Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, a research economist at the center and an author of the study.

In fact, dancers have the greatest difficulty working later in life, more than farmers, roofers and iron workers, the researchers found.

Early retirement is the norm rather than the exception, according to research by JPMorgan Asset Management. While two-thirds of current workers want to continue working until at least age 65, fewer than 1 in 4 current retirees actually managed to do so, the researchers found. The biggest reason people retired early was a health problem or disability.

However, the disappearance of traditional pensions may have amplified workers' desire to stay employed, because for many the biggest determinant of financial security in retirement is the amount in their 401(k) plan accounts.

"It's getting more and more important for workers to work longer," Sanzenbacher said.

Not only that, early retirees may feel compelled to claim Social Security benefits earlier, and lose out on the increase in benefits that occurs every year from ages 62 to 70.

Clearly, a physically demanding job can become harder to perform with age. But certain skills that are important for some highly skilled jobs may also fade over time, and those are what the center's researchers identified and weighed into a measure of susceptibility to early retirement.

For example, in terms of sensory abilities, speech does not decline significantly with age, and hearing tends to change only slightly before age 70. But the ability to identify where a sound is coming from can diminish much earlier, and jobs requiring that ability will become more challenging.

Cognitive abilities that depend on knowledge accumulated over time decline relatively slowly. But so-called fluid cognitive abilities, like reaction time and working memory, which depend on laying down new information, tend to deteriorate. So jobs that require the latter are harder to do later in life.

That may explain why an earlier study of cognition found that financial decision-making ability improves up to about age 53 and then declines.

The Boston College center's findings contain some surprises. Nurses are more susceptible to age-related decline than prepress technicians, for example. And commodities and securities traders, who need to quickly process and react to new information all the time, are less susceptible to the declines of age than some surgeons.

"The notion that all white-collar workers can work longer or that all blue-collar workers cannot is too simplistic,'' the researchers concluded.

With life expectancies increasing, some people turn to a second career later in life, and that can provide an antidote to aging out of a longtime profession.

In addition, medical advances with antiaging therapies may someday help some people slow their decline over the years.

For now, though, there is the old saw about aging: It is, at least, better than the alternative.