At the Cooper Tire plant in Findlay, Ohio, Jack Hartley, who is 58, works a 12-hour shift assembling tires: pulling piles of rubber and lining over a drum, cutting the material with a hot knife, lifting the half-finished tire, which weighs 10 to 20 pounds, and throwing it onto a rack.
Mr. Hartley performs these steps nearly 30 times an hour, or 300 times in a shift. “The pain started about the time I was 50,” he said. “Dessert with lunch is ibuprofen. Your knees start going bad, your lower back, your elbows, your shoulders.”
He said he does not think he can last until age 66, when he will be eligible for full Social Security retirement benefits. At 62 or 65, he said, “that’s it.”
After years of debate about how to keep Social Security solvent, the White House has created an 18-member panel to consider changes, including raising the retirement age. Representative John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio and the House minority leader, has called for raising the age as high as 70 in the next 20 years, and many Democrats have endorsed similar steps, against opposition from some liberal groups. The panel will report by Dec. 1, after the midterm elections.
Mr. Hartley says he feels like the forgotten man. Discussion has focused mostly on the older workers who hold relatively undemanding jobs at desks and computers that can be done at age 69 or beyond. But hard labor is not a thing of the past for older workers, who are on the whole less educated than younger ones.
A new analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that one in three workers over age 58 does a physically demanding job like Mr. Hartley’s — including hammering nails, bending under sinks, lifting baggage — that can be radically different at age 69 than at age 62. Still others work under difficult conditions, like exposure to heat or cold, exposure to contaminants or weather, cramped workplaces or standing for long stretches.
In all, the researchers found that 45 percent of older workers, or 8.5 million, held such difficult jobs. For janitors, nurses’ aides, plumbers, cashiers, waiters, cooks, carpenters, maintenance workers and others, raising the retirement age may mean squeezing more out of a declining body.
Mr. Hartley had planned to retire at 58, but he and his wife had high medical expenses, and the company froze one year of its pension plan, reducing benefits. He is, he said, “stuck here.”
"We’re close to the point when one-third of adults will be on Social Security and will be retired for a third or more of their adult lives."
Workers like Mr. Hartley present a conundrum for a Social Security overhaul, said Eugene Steuerle, a fellow at the Urban Institute, who favors raising the retirement age. People are living longer, and providing “old age” benefits to them when they are relatively young and healthy, he said, makes less available to them when they are older and frailer.
“We’re close to the point when one-third of adults will be on Social Security and will be retired for a third or more of their adult lives,” Mr. Steuerle said. “It’s true that some people in late middle age have issues of physically demanding jobs, but saying we’re going to give everyone more years of retirement is not an efficient way of dealing with that issue.”
Any changes in Social Security’s retirement age will not affect workers currently in their late 50s and their 60s, who are eligible for full benefits at age 66. But their experiences now are a harbinger of things to come, said Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School for Social Research in New York, who opposes raising the Social Security retirement age because she says it will have a disproportionate impact on lower-income workers and minorities, who tend to have lower life expectancies and so fewer years of collecting benefits. At the same time, blue-collar workers often spend more years paying into Social Security because they start full-time work younger, she said.
“People who need to retire early — and they need to — are folks that start working in their late teens, whereas people who are promoting raising the retirement age are people who were in graduate school or professional school and got into jobs that would logically take them into their late 60s and 70s,” she said.
A study by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics found that for workers ages 55 to 60, the share who said their jobs required “lots of physical effort” all or almost all of the time declined between 1992 and 2002, to 18 percent from 20 percent, but the percentages who said they had to lift heavy loads, stoop, kneel or crouch increased.
In 2002, 29 percent of workers ages 55 to 60 said they experienced chronic pain in their jobs, and 46 percent said they had arthritis.
And though more Americans are retiring early, it is not always voluntary. A 2006 study by McKinsey & Company found that 40 percent of early retirees said they were forced into it, about half for health reasons.
“If you try to punish people for retiring earlier” by raising the retirement age, “you’re punishing people who aren’t choosing it,” Professor Ghilarducci said.
This is not news to Jim McGuire, 62, a ramp serviceman for United Airlines, who started lifting bags into airplanes 43 years ago. He has had rotator cuff surgery and separated a shoulder on the job.
“From 50 to 60 was a drastic change,” he said. “The aches and pains, the feeling that your back could go at any second. My hips are worn out. In a seven-day week, I take Advil five nights for the pain.”
Mr. McGuire said that he did not have a planned retirement date, but that he hoped to make it to 66. Since United’s pension plan was taken over by the government, cutting his benefits in half, he says Social Security has become a much bigger part of his future plans.
For Bobbie Smith, 69, a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home in Miami, getting older has just meant using her body more judiciously. Providing direct care to the elderly, Mrs. Smith belongs to one of the fastest-growing work forces in the country and one of the grayest.
“I learned to arrange work so it won’t be so hard on me,” she said. “I try to encourage patients to the point that they help themselves.”
She said she planned to continue working, even as she got older than some of her patients.
“What am I going to do if I sit at home, keep cleaning the house?” she said. “I need the money. I bought me a car, and I want to pay for it. But I would still work.”