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As we age, our physical and cognitive abilities tend to decline. And that, say the authors of a recent research report, could lead to a mismatch between workers' resources and the demands of their jobs, restricting future work.

In other words, you might find yourself working in a job that doesn't quite suit you. Or, worse yet, you may find that health issues will force you to retire earlier than you planned.

"Our paper is mostly descriptive and the results don't directly translate into actionable advice, other than stay healthy, and find jobs that align with your abilities at old age," said Peter Hudomiet, an associate economist at RAND and co-author of The Effect of Physical and Cognitive Decline at Older Ages on Work and Retirement: Evidence From Occupational Job Demands and Job Mismatch. "Relying on physically demanding jobs as a sole source of income elevates the risk of early retirement -- often with lower retirement resources and higher medical bills as shown in other research."

Now, in their study, the researchers were interested in measuring the "mismatch" between older workers and their jobs, and learning if the mismatch induces stress, and if it affects retirement outcomes. According to Hudomiet, "mismatch" is a loose term, but they defined it as:

  • A mismatched worker is in a job that requires "X," but the worker lacks "X".
  • "X" can be physical strength, fine motor skills or cognitive abilities.

And what the researchers found is that as workers age, their abilities decline and they are more likely to be mismatched.

How to Tell if There's a Mismatch

So, how might you tell if there's a mismatch between you and your job? "Workers' abilities and skills may change over time as they age, but the requirements of their jobs may not change or not as fast," said Hudomiet. "If that happens, workers may become mismatched with their jobs' demands. Simply put, they may not be able to do what they need to do, or it may become hard for them."

Hudomiet and his colleagues were also curious if they could detect mismatch and wanted to analyze its implications. Now, some of their findings, by his own admission, were not surprising.

For instance, "declines in strength, fine motor skills and cognitive abilities all increase stress and induce early retirement," he said. "But we found an interesting asymmetry between physically versus cognitively demanding jobs."

For instance, workers in physically demanding jobs exhibit elevated risk of early retirement. "They are more likely to develop physical health problems, likely because their jobs are too demanding/exhausting," Hudomiet said. "And once they develop physical health problems, there is an added difficulty for them to continue working. In other words, mismatch is a great problem for them."

By contrast, the researchers found that workers in cognitively demanding jobs are at lower risk of early retirement. "They are, a bit, less likely to develop cognitive problems, likely because they exercise their brains more, Hudomiet said.

"Note the contrast with physical jobs. If they develop some measurable decline in cognitive functioning, there is no evidence for added difficulty for them to continue working. In other words, there is not much evidence for mismatch: Cognition is important in all jobs, it is not concentrated in a few cognitively demanding jobs," Hudomiet said.

Implications of the Study

So, what's the explanation for all this? The preferred explanation is this: "Cognitively demanding jobs require 'knowledge' -- often acquired at least in part through experience on the job -- rather than 'cognitive ability' per se," he said. "People whose cognitive abilities decline -- who develop memory problems, for example -- can still perform reasonably well on their jobs, because of the accumulated knowledge and experience they have. Physically demanding jobs, in contrast, require strength directly."

That's all well and good, but what are the implications of the study?

"Maintaining physical health and cognition is, not surprisingly, important and beneficial for workers," said Hudomiet. "Do everything you can to stay healthy, active, and the like."

As for workers in physically demanding jobs, they might consider, according to Hudomiet, the following:

  • Looking for less physically demanding jobs at older ages before they start developing health symptoms.
  • Taking advantage of job or skill training opportunities that qualify the worker for non-physical jobs. That would allow the worker to change jobs or tasks, rather than retire early.

According to Hudomiet, these workers have elevated risk of early retirement because their physical job demands may harm, over time, their most important asset for performing well on their jobs: their health.

By contrast, the opposite applies for workers in cognitively demanding jobs. "Using their cognitive skills regularly on their job helps them maintain their cognition rather than deplete it," he said.

Finding a Job that Aligns with Your Abilities

If you are mismatched, how might you go about finding a job that aligns with your abilities?

"It is a tough question, because abilities and job requirements are multidimensional and complex, said Hudomiet. "There are abilities and skills that maintain relatively well with age. Jobs that use them are good candidates for older workers: knowledge and experience, for example, and communication skills.

Cognitive abilities tend to decline with age, but Hudomiet and his colleagues found that they had mild effect on older workers. "So, jobs that strongly rely on cognitive abilities, memorization for example, may not be good for older workers."

Physical strength, however, strongly declines with age, and the researchers found it has large effects on older workers, he said. "So, avoiding jobs that rely on physical strength seems important," he said.

Implications for Employers

Hudomiet and his colleagues also say there are implications for employers to consider. "Employers may also want to accommodate older workers changing abilities, or simply be mindful of the wear and tear that the physical nature of the job is imposing on their workers," he said.

Employers, for example, might consider making the same jobs less physically demanding or offering different jobs/tasks to workers who develop health problems, or even before they develop health problems, he said.

The research has implications for policy makers and employers. "Training and skill programs could help workers in physically demanding jobs develop additional non-physical skills that would help these workers stay in the labor force longer," Hudomiet said.

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