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Physical labor puts older workers in economic limbo

A construction worker measures a window as he works on a new home at the Olson Homes Garden Walk development in Hayward, Calif.

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Tess Vigeland: The mid-term election is just a couple of days away now. And politicians have worked to make sure you get the message that if you don't choose them, it's tricks instead of treats. They've been at their spooky best when talking about the lack of jobs, though not many have proffered actual new ideas on that front. Because of the bleak economic picture, people are often deciding to work longer than they had planned to. And in the future, that decision may be made for them.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Dan Gorenstein reports.


Dan Gorenstein: Tom Welch goes by "Grizz." The bearded construction worker comes by his nickname honestly. For over four decades, Grizz -- now 59 -- has lived by the motto "work hard, play hard, live hard."

This barrel-chested guy remembers one house he worked on 30 years ago.

Grizz: We were on a job, it had rained, it was me and one other framer there...

The foreman had sent everyone else home.

Drenched already, Grizz figured a few more hours meant a few more dollars, plus he'd impress the boss. Then, a wall fell.

Grizz: To drop it would have possibly taken the other worker, so my choice was to stand there and lock it down. That didn't cause me a hospital visit that day. But, it turned out I collapsed two discs in my spine.

Grizz wasn't even 30 at the time. It's one thing to ask lawyers, professors, journalists -- people Grizz likes to call "pencil pushers" -- to retire later in life. But for waitresses, movers and tradesmen, people who rely on their bodies, it's a more demanding proposition.

Right now, if you were born in 1960 or later, you'll have to be 67 to collect 100 percent of your Social Security. This December, a presidential commission could recommend people keep working until 69 or 70 before they can get that benefit. Grizz says one problem with the idea is people start out in manual labor pretty young, and they don't think about how long their bodies are going to have to last.

Grizz: I remember in Pennsylvania being young and dumb and a bet that I could carry two bundles at the same time up a double ladder.

Grizz didn't hurt himself carrying the two bundles of roofing shingles. What happened was worse than that. Grizz says the idea that he was...

Grizz: Ten feet tall and bullet proof.

...got planted in his head that day. And he spent the next 20 years acting like it.

Grizz: I think I was still pretty bullet proof at 38, maybe even at 40. But then the reality starts to settle in when you wake up in the morning and you jump up, and you ain't got as much "jump up" as you used to have.

There are lots of people whose jobs have left them with less "jump up." A recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (PDF) found nearly half of all workers over 58 had physically demanding jobs. That's eight and a half million people. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, older workers are more likely to miss work because of injuries.

Contractor Tom Avallone has seen what decades of pounding, hefting, slipping and bending can do.

Tom Avallone: There are physical changes that you just can't sustain the level of work that you want to when you get into your upper years.

Avallone has run Cobb Hill Construction in Concord, N.H. for 25 years. If people have to work longer, Avallone says his insurance could go up. But overall, he's not afraid of that hurting his bottom line because in his industry, workers' knees, backs and shoulders wear out early.

Avallone: A lot of them don't make it to 65. A lot of them don't make it to 62. That job working at Home Depot or Lowes, and wearing a nice orange or blue apron or whatever color they are, at the age of 60 looks pretty good.

Studies show that manual laborers often have little education. What that means is when people's bodies finally give out, they don't have many other employment options.

Thomas Hunt: It was cold. At the end of the day, you're still cold and then you come home and you just collapse. You are tired. Your body isn't designed to do that.

After four decades of electrical work, 63-year-old Thomas Hunt says he had to get warm. These last four years, Hunt's been wearing one of those colored aprons at a big box hardware store. While he's happy, his hourly wage has dropped from $30 to less than $12, and he can't squirrel anything away for life after work.

Economic Policy Institute economist Monique Morrissey says raising the retirement age will only leave more people like Hunt in economic limbo.

Monique Morrissey: People won't be able to retire, but they won't be able to work either. And they're just going to be poor. I think we would have a huge, huge increase in poverty and near-poverty in old age.

Even now, there are plenty of manual laborers who continue to work despite the physical pain, because they can't afford to retire. Even if someone like Grizz could start collecting Social Security, it's not enough to live on. As an independent contractor, Grizz has gotta compete for work, something he says that's harder to do than it sounds.

Grizz: If you wanted to go for a horseback ride, and you saw two horses comin' across the field, and one of them was limping, which one would you want to go with a ride with?

And with his bills, especially the pain medication he needs to get him through the day, Grizz says he's got to keep swinging a hammer until he can't.

In Concord, N.H., I'm Dan Gorenstein for Marketplace Money.

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For me the "big box" store and apron would still involve standing on hard floors, which with my knees is not really an option either. So, I'm hoping to make the next 7 years to retire at 66, and hope to find some part time work to make ends meet. Many days I don't think I'll even make that, having been on disability twice a few years ago.

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