My personal conclusion is that aging is not something we should worry about--with several important caveats. The National Council on Compensation Insurance and Liberty Mutual's Research Institute for Safety issued reports in the past few years on this topic.
Let's thread a fictional worker, Hank, through the labyrinth of data, keeping an eye on not just what the facts say but what Hank's personal concerns and incentives are. Facts are not mutable, but Hank's state of mind is.
Hank was born in 1955 in the midst of the 78 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964. He has worked in healthcare equipment maintenance, and is working today, at age 53. In the long historic view, Hank is phenomenally better off than his grandfather at the same age. He has far fewer chronic conditions and is better educated; he has triple the leisure time; he has his TiVo. Two kids have graduated from college. His wife works. They have refinanced their home in Duluth, Minn.
But he is heavy for his height. He experiences increasing signs of gimpiness. His doctor has warned him about diabetes and hypertension.
Seven out of eight of his male friends are working. Some of Hank's friends have begun to plan actively for retirement, but he has noted more jobs at Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart are being filled by people who look the far side of 60. Changes in equipment design have reduced his episodes of exertion. Most injuries seem to be sustained by younger and, to him, less disciplined workers.
As I have sketched him, Hank should have lower injury risk than his younger co-workers. If he were injured, being 13 years older than the average injured U.S. worker should not make a material difference.
Here are scenarios that tip the balance toward a greater duration of injury for Hank.
With a history of prior injuries, there would be greater risk of Hank staying out longer. It is unclear whether this is due to greater psychobiological effort to recover or other factors like job dissatisfaction and the acquired skills of being disabled. This duration driver is not directly related to aging so much as to repeated injury experience.
If Hank had several health conditions and were dissatisfied with his job--these often come together--risk of prolonged disability would be much higher. These drivers are also not directly related to aging, although certainly, with aging, chronic conditions emerge.
Risks of greater duration would be much higher if Hank were 60, because then he would be planning to retire.
But, with Hank at 53 or even at 60, there is an important exception to these scenarios, which Glenn Pransky at Liberty Mutual and colleagues call "job lock." A very large share of aging workers who are injured would like to leave work altogether but cannot because they need the income or the benefits such as their company health plan. Feeling locked in and suffering poor workplace relationship and poor health could lead to high levels of work stress in Hank. It could lead to presenteeism, future injuries and premature retirement.
This is what we should be worrying about when we worry about the aging worker.
PETER ROUSMANIERE is a Vermont-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
March 1, 2008
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