Slowed or Sidelined? The Effect of 'Normal' Cognitive Decline on Job Performance Among the Elderly
Center for Retirement Research at Boston College Working Paper No. 2015-12
31 Pages Posted: 3 Jul 2015
Date Written: June 1, 2015
This paper examines the relationship between age-related cognitive decline and three potential workplace outcomes: 1) coping with increased job difficulty; 2) shifting to a less cognitively demanding job; and 3) retiring early. It uses data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and the O*NET database. Critical components of the analysis are the metric used to measure cognitive decline, inclusion of cognitive reserve as an independent variable, and the use of overlapping 10-year observation windows. A key limitation is that the study cannot conclusively discern a causal relationship between cognitive decline and workforce exit.
The paper found that: About 10 percent of workers between the ages of 55 and 69 experienced steep cognitive decline over a 10-year period. Workers experiencing steep cognitive decline were more likely to “downshift” to a less demanding job or retire than workers experiencing no cognitive decline. Workers experiencing steep cognitive decline retired significantly earlier than planned, compared to workers who experienced no change in cognitive ability. Workers without cognitive reserves were more likely to exit the workforce and retire earlier than planned, compared to workers with cognitive reserves. The policy implications of the findings are: Cognitive decline might prevent a significant minority of older individuals from working to their planned retirement ages, and thus should be considered when assessing reforms that incent delayed retirement. Policies that support “downshifting” to a cognitively less demanding job might help workers at risk of steep cognitive decline to remain in the labor force. Further research is needed to identify whether workers in specific occupations are more susceptible to age-related decline than others, and whether anything can be done to moderate the effect of age-related decline in work ability.
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