Very few people enter the workforce expecting to work forever – but are there some jobs that you won’t be able to perform until retirement age?

People have long theorized that while people would be more likely to age out of blue-collar jobs that require physical strength, the same would not be true for white-collar jobs. A recent study by researchers at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College disputes this generalization. Its list of careers that won’t take you to retirement includes a surprising number of white-collar jobs. It turns out that some types of white-collar skills do decline, while others last well into your 60s and 70s.

Which Skills Last? Which Don't?

To create their list, the researchers developed a "Susceptibility Index,"  which "measures how likely the physical and cognitive abilities required by an occupation are to decline during the working years."  Some physical skills, such as strength, are obvious. But not everyone considers how manual dexterity can decline and affect such jobs as oral surgeon and photographer.

Then there are cognitive abilities. The researchers report "that 'crystallized' cognitive abilities, such as vocabulary, tend to accumulate well into an individual's sixties and even seventies." This means that oral and written comprehension and mathematical abilities can last throughout a career, making jobs that rely on those ones likely to last.

"On the other hand," the study reports, "'fluid' cognitive abilities, such as episodic memory, working memory and inductive and deductive reasoning – which people need to acquire new information and make decisions – steadily decline with age starting in a worker's twenties or thirties."  This can affect the ability to keep up in fast-changing fields.

Then there's a "class of 'psychomotor' abilities that involve a mix of both the cognitive and the physical to coordinate fine movements." Think of a nurse practitioner suturing a wound or an airline pilot responding to signals with hand or foot movements on the controls.

How Skills Affect Jobs

At the top of the susceptibility list are dancers and roofers – not surprising due to the physical demands of these jobs and the high potential for injury. But also on the high end of the list were airline pilots, jewelers, maids and housekeepers, truck drivers, oral surgeons, kindergarten teachers, photographers and licensed practical nurses.

Some of these careers are cut short due to physical limitations: Household workers, kindergarten teachers and nurses all need to be fairly active and perform a range of motion during the workday. Other physical limitations may include the loss of fine motor skills rather than an overall decease in mobility; jewelers and oral surgeons need steady hands and precise movements. Still others – such as truck drivers and airline pilots – may need a combination of long attention spans and the ability to sit still for many hours at a stretch.

Additionally, some aging workers may find that a decrease in certain types of cognitive abilities are also affecting their ability to perform at work. Note that supervisors & proprietors are higher on the Susceptibility Index than managers & administrators (see chart below), perhaps reflecting that the first two jobs require more quick response to fast-changing fields.

Retirement Planning and Your Job

If you’re concerned that you won’t be able to perform your job – due to physical or mental requirements – until the age of 66 or 67 (Social Security full retirement age if you were born in 1960 or later), there are some things you can do now to protect yourself from an unwanted early retirement.

  • Look into training now for a second career. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes a hugely useful resource called the Occupational Outlook Handbook that provides information about careers. The handbook includes median incomes, job descriptions, training requirements and projected future job growth. There is something to be said for following your passion to be a dancer, but long term career planning is also important if you’re in a job with a short expected career length.
  • Stay fit. If you’re in a job that requires a wide range of motion, you’ll be able to continue performing your job longer if you exercise and eat right.
  • Consider additional disability insurance. Many jobs offer the option to pay out of pocket for additional disability insurance, or you can take out your own insurance plan. Additional disability insurance can protect you into the future and make the difference between having tight finances or being comfortable. This may be an especially smart financial move if you are in a field where you think you may be physically unable to perform the duties required of you until the age of 65. Choosing the Best Disability Insurance can help you select a plan.
  • Transition your career into management as you age. Maybe you won’t have the cognitive ability to learn new computer skills at the age of 60, but if you’ve spent 35 years learning how to manage people and honing your leadership skills, you will continue to provide valuable support to your company. Age and experience can be an asset, if you make a point to incorporate management and leadership experience into your career as a skill you bring to the table.

The Bottom Line 

Due to the demands of some jobs, not all workers will make it to retirement, at least in the jobs they did for much of their work lives. This can have obvious financial repercussions. Collecting Social Security benefits early means you won't receive the maximum amount you could have collected if you had to full retirement age. Early exit from a job with benefits means a smaller investment in a 401(k) or a 403(b), which could have large repercussions in later retirement years.

That being said, you can make smart choices now that will extend the length of your career – or at least protect yourself if you do need to take an early retirement. Some fields, such as police work, allow for this reality by building in younger retirement ages, after 20 years of service, for example.

As you're planning for your retirement, think about whether you're in the kind of job that is likely to be more difficult to do in your 60s or beyond. If you are, consider planning for a second career or for moving into a segment of your field that may work better toward the end of your career. Don't Retire Early – Change Careers Instead and Planning Your Second Career may help you think about possible next steps.