As Americans’ average life expectancy has been generally trending longer for decades, some experts have urged people to delay retirement and work longer, and many policies have been developed to incentivize this behavior. But these efforts miss an important segment of older workers: those who retire prematurely because of health conditions.

Each year, millions of older workers leave the labor force and retire prematurely, often because of health shocks. The COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn have made these challenges even greater for older workers, who are at increased risk of negative health outcomes and who are experiencing high rates of unemployment during the pandemic. Many of these workers also do not qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and instead must accept reduced retirement benefits.

Older workers face greater risk of premature retirement after a health shock

Older workers who experience job loss are much more likely to retire prematurely, and that job loss is often the result of a health shock.

One survey found 4 in 10 workers reported retiring earlier than planned. Of the retirees reporting premature retirement, 35 percent retired because of a health problem or a disability. Survey data from 1992 to 2016 show that many workers ages 50 to 67 report being forced or felt somewhat forced to retire, often citing health as a factor.

Workplace accommodations can help keep at-risk workers employed

Many workers’ most immediate need is access to job-protected medical leave, which would allow them to stay employed while dealing with health issues. Research indicates that when workers can take adequate leave to manage a health condition, they experience better health outcomes. After that critical protection, other accommodations may evolve to include flexible schedules, special equipment, and revised work tasks to help them return to work successfully.

Leveraging paid medical leave programs to assist workers

State-paid family and medical leave programs provide an opportunity to educate workers who may need accommodations to return to work successfully.

Read the full article about older workers by Jack Smalligan and Chantel Boyens at Urban Institute.