Dec 20, 2013

It's Not Just Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

     Andrew Biggs has responded to Michael Hiltzik's criticism of Bigg's testimony before the Senate Finance Committee saying that Social Security's full retirement age can be safely increased because the physical demands of work have gone down. Biggs admits to being a bit snarky in expressing his point but argues that what he said was substantially correct. Hiltzik isn't buying it.
     Biggs' testimony was that the biggest on the job threat to older workers is carpal tunnel syndrome. That statement may be snarky but it's also flat out wrong. The study that Biggs relies upon does show that, in general, work has become less physically demanding over the decades. No one disputes that. However, the study also shows that work remains physically demanding for a significant portion of the workforce. This is the key language from the report:
About 46 percent of workers were employed in occupations that entailed any general physical demands (which included strength, stamina, quick reaction time, balance, bending or twisting, kneeling or crouching, handling objects , standing, walking, running, and making repetitive motions). Spending time standing—the most common physical demand—was very or extremely important to job performance for 34 percent of workers. Only 7 percent, however, were employed in jobs that imposed high general physical demands.
     You don't have to be in a job that the study refers to as having "high general physical demands" to be in trouble as you age and your body changes. Let's just focus on the 34% of the workforce whose jobs require standing. That's a lot of people. Injuries or degenerative changes associated with aging (arthritis and related conditions) affecting the feet, ankles, knees, hips or low back can eliminate an individual's ability to stand for extended periods of time. Feet, ankles, knees, hips, low back -- that's a lot of body parts and it only takes a problem with one of them to eliminate the ability to stand for extended periods of time.I can't say what percentage of the population who are over the current full retirement age or even the early retirement age have injuries or degenerative changes significantly affecting their feet, ankles, knees, hips or low backs but I'm sure it's quite high. Yes, injuries can occur at any age but their effects are more difficult to overcome if you're older. Older people have more residuals after injuries. Many people are able to cope well with the effects of fractures when they're young but have increasing problems with their old fractures as they age. If Andrew Biggs needs proof of this, he need only look around among his own friends and acquaintances. How many of them have bad feet? How many have had knee surgery? How many have had joint replacement surgery before reaching 62? How many are a bit slow to rise from a seated position? How many seem to prefer to sit down to have a conversation? How many have shown up at the office from time to time using a cane? These people do just fine in office jobs but they can't work at the snack bar in the office building where Biggs works because they can't stand all day. Those are the 34% of the population that Biggs ignores because he hardly ever interacts with them in any substantive way.
     By the way, the study also showed that the cognitive demands of employment have been increasing over the years. This greatly disadvantages older workers who have lower cognitive abilities. Education and training can only do so much to overcome what nature has not provided. Most people with lower cognitive abilities never received much help in overcoming their cognitive limitations anyway. By the time they get older, it's too late. For that matter, psychiatric problems also limit an individual's ability to use their cognitive abilities. The study doesn't state what percentage of the population have cognitive or other mental limitations that limit their ability to work but the study certainly makes it clear that they have become progressively more disadvantaged by the changes in the workforce.
     If anything, the report that Biggs tries to rely upon shows to me that a huge percentage of those over Social Security's early retirement age of 62 have serious problems working because of physical and mental limitations and this problem isn't going away.

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