The Future of Aging Why Hardship Exemptions For Working Until Youre 69 Will Fail

Richard Eskow

Whatever the President says about Social Security in his State of the Union speech, the push to cut it will continue. A great deal of time, effort, and money has been expended to make sure that it does, and to promote a very limited set of policies for reducing retirement benefits. The centerpiece of those proposals is a plan to raise the retirement age to age 69 by 2075.

This harsh idea is being defended with a promise that there will be a “hardship exemption” for workers whose jobs are too demanding. But that’s a promise that’s destined to be broken.

There are many reasons why this solution won’t work, and here are eight of them: The future is unpredictable. It will be difficult and bureaucratic to define “hardship.” The definition of hardship is too limited. Age discrimination leads to unrecognized hardship. It will create cumbersome administrative and legal processes. They’re not setting enough money aside. Hardship’s impact will be discriminatory. And last but not least, relying on the ‘hardship exemption” calls on us to trust politicians even as they’re in the act of breaking a commitment.

Let’s look at those eight reasons more closely:

1. The world is going to change in ways we can’t imagine.

One of today’s most common type of work condition, repetitive motion injury, was relatively rare twenty-five years ago, before the spread of computers in the workplace. Administrative assistants, data entry clerks, and people on managerial career tracks all type far more often than they did twenty-five years ago. That means they spend hours each day in a new posture, with fingers splayed on a computer keyboard and their head and eyes facing upward towards the screen.

The resulting wear and tear on nerves, muscles, and tendons has caused an explosion in workers’ compensation claims, for conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, De Quervain’s Tendonitis Focal Dystonia Syndrome, Guyon’s Canal Syndrome, and “trigger finger.” Other complaints include eyestrain, lower back pain, neck pain, and frequent headaches.

People face other conditions in the workplace that weren’t anticipated a few decades ago. Survivors of the World Trade Center attack experienced a variety of unexpected injuries and illnesses brought on by the inhalation of foreign materials, the psychological trauma of the attack, and other conditions. These conditions weren’t being discussed on September 10, 2001. After 9/11 the workers’ compensation insurance industry invested a great deal of time and effort in anticipated the workplace effects of ongoing terrorism – which fortunately hasn’t become reality, at least not so far. But these kinds of changes in the outside world can change our work life, sometimes in dramatic and unexpected ways.

Here’s another example of our changing world: We saw a massive spread of asbestos-related illnesses in the 20th Century because scientists didn’t understand that this material, commonly used as a flame retardant in building materials, would cause mesothelioma, a cancer that attacks the lungs and other internal organs. Asbestos was banned, leading health and safety experts to believe that mesothelioma would once again become rare.

But as science moves forward, it takes unexpected detours. Old materials are are making way for cutting-edge new technologies like “multi-walled carbon nanotubes,” which are currently used to build ultralight tennis rackets and are being studied for a number of other uses. There’s only one problem: Studies indicate they may cause mesothelioma. (More here.)

If we didn’t know that a new, exciting material might cause diseases in those that are exposed to it (and to the manufacturing workers that handle it), how can we predict what might cause physical stresses for employees of the future? Tomorrow’s human body will be subject to stresses and strains in the workplace that we can’t yet imagine.

How can any program define “work hardship” for aging bodies fifty or sixty-five years in the future?

2. The process for defining hardship is bureaucratic and vague.

The most specific proposal for defining hardship comes from the personal recommendations of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the two co-chairs of the Deficit Commission that was unable to agree on a set of recommendations. Simpson and Bowles punted on the definition of hardship, giving the Social Security Administration ten years to develop a working definition.

That’s ten years for politicians and bureaucrats to argue and haggle over the day-to-day conditions experienced by millions of working Americans. Will the people devising those terms understand that a teacher must be on his or her feet for many hours during the day, then has to grade papers all night, and is subjected to daily stresses and risks? How about a police detective who’s been transferred to a desk after being shot on the job? He or she may still cope with daily reminders of a stressful experience, along with job stress and irregular hour/ Will they understand that a data analyst has to peer through aging eyes at a small screen for many hours of the day, often leading to chronic migraines or other disabling conditions?

These proposals politicize and “bureaucratize” the decision-making process. They don’t require the use of medical experts, technological forecasters, or stakeholders in the process such as unions or business leaders. And even an ideal process for defining hardship would require constant study, research, and redefinition of the term. Who will have that responsibility? How will the process keep pace with a world that’s changing at an ever-increasing rate?

3. Definitions of “hardship” are too limited.

Discussions of workplace hardship focus almost exclusively on physical pain and limitations, and even these terms are defined too narrowly. Workers endure other kinds of physical hardship as they age, too. They fatigue more easily. They’re more susceptible to certain forms of illness. And we continue to learn more about the aging process with every passing year.

What’s more, our political culture is hostile to the idea of emotional and psychological hardship. It’s still politically popular to insist that people suffering these conditions should “tough it out,” despite the ever-increasing body of scientific knowledge that shows this kind of judgement is inaccurate and unfair.

Will the definition of hardship include the cumulative effect a first responder experiences after decades of traumatic experiences? Will it include social workers who have reached the point of “burnout,” or bus drivers who have been belittled and abused for four decades? Highly unlikely.

4. Age discrimination creates hardship.

Unless our culture experiences a miraculous transformation, people will find it harder to get and keep jobs as they get older. This problem has already reached epidemic proportions. Age discrimination is particularly hard on women. That’s why the National Organization of Women took a controversial stand last year by fighting a tax on cosmetic surgeries, saying that it would place too heavy a burden on women who need to alter their appearance to remain competitive in the workplace.

Men face age discrimination, too. Talented older employees are often fired from their current job or rejected for a new one because employers want somebody they believe will work longer hours, is “hungrier” or “edgier,” or simply costs less to hire. Many people take early retirement because they can’t find a job.

Age discrimination, and the things it forces employees to do, isn’t likely to be defined as a “hardship” – but it’s a very real one in the real world. If workers or jobseekers are forced into ever-more invasive surgeries and other medical procedures in order to make their bodies suitable or attractive to employers, that is a hardship that cuts to the heart of personal autonomy by undermining an individual’s right to make choices about his or her own body.

5. We’ll need a cumbersome process for processing claims, handling appeals, and resolving legal challenges.

How will claims of hardship be decided? Consider a few of the many issues that are going to come up:

  • An employee claims that her job involves too much standing or walking, but the employer denies that it does.
  • A worker says he’s having difficulty concentrating, and that the natural aging process has made his memory too weak and his thought process too slow. Is he telling the truth or just looking for an exemption that can’t be proven or denied with physical evidence?
  • Someone files for a hardship exemption because their job involves lifting. But at one point in their career they had a sedentary job. Are they allowed to file for retirement, or are they required to seek employment in the job they once had? What if they held that job years ago? Or decades?

There will be countless disputes and ambiguities with any definition of hardship. A process will have to be set up for receiving requests for hardship retirement. Another will have to be established to resolve disputes or grievances. Workers will hire attorneys, and there will need to be some process for holding hearings. The end result will be a new and costly administrative law system and an ongoing stream of disputes.

And the cost of resolving them will cut into any expected savings – unless future administrations do what the Reagan Administration did with disability determinations. They simply slashed the budget for determining disability, creating a huge backlog and leaving a lot of people without benefits while they wait for a decision.

6. The numbers don’t add up — and they’re not written in stone.

Simpson and Bowles tell us that they propose setting aside enough funds to permit early “hardship” retirements for 20% of all workers. There are two problems with that idea: First, that’s not enough. A recent study by Hye Jin Rho of CEPR showed that 35% of workers 58 years of age and older had physically demanding jobs, and that 27% had “difficult working conditions.”

In other words, even if this commitment were kept it would leave up to 15% of older workers uncovered by the “hardship exemption,” even by today’s limited standards of hardship. And the 20% figure isn’t a commitment. It’s just a guideline.

7. Hardships will still discriminate toward minorities.

The CEPR report also showed that “difficult jobs were held by 62.4 percent of Latino workers, 53.2 percent of black workers, 50.5 percent of Asian Pacific American workers, and 42.6 percent of white workers.” If there isn’t enough money to provide for hardship exemptions (see above), minorities will suffer disproportionately.

We know that African Americans have shorter lifespans than Caucasians. If the retirement age is raised, they’ll receive less total benefit from Social Security. Factor in the number of hardship-level jobs in the minority community, and the net effect is highly discriminatory.

8. The “hardship exemption” asks us to trust politicians … as they’re breaking a promise.

“Trust us,” these politicians are saying. “We’ll create exemptions for anybody who would experience a hardship when we raise the retirement age.” But they won’t tell us what those exemptions look like, and we won’t know for ten years. And they’re asking for trust even as they’re proposing to break the bond between working Americans and its government – a bond that was reaffirmed with every deduction from a paycheck.

The expressed reason for breaking that bond was to reduce the deficit – at first. But too many people pointed out that Social Security doesn’t contribute to the deficit, so they’ve changed their tune. Changing your story doesn’t build trust, either. And Social Security doesn’t need these draconian solutions – lifting the cap on payroll taxes would fundamentally solve its minor long-term imbalance. And the only promise they’re willing to make is that they’ll fund the hardship exemption with much less money than it would actually need.

That’s hardly what you’d call a confidence builder.

The simplest solution? Don’t expect people to work until they’re nearly seventy years old. It’s not necessary, it’s not wise, and it’s not humane.

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This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign.

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