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Pandemic Shift to Remote Work Puts Seniors at Financial Disadvantage

As many businesses shifted employees to work from their homes, new research suggests that older workers are about as well situated to work from home as their younger counterparts. However, the same research also suggests that only about 45% of older workers are in occupations that can allow them to work remotely. This is based on research presented by Anqi Chen and Alicia H. Munnell from the Boston College Center for Retirement Research.

While the U.S. economy is in the midst of more actively ratcheting up its economic activity after a period of closure stemming from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, some of the necessary changes brought about by the conditions of the pandemic can now be more fully understood. With less than half of older workers maintaining occupations that allow them to work remotely, some troubling implications emerge especially as older people remain particularly vulnerable to serious illness stemming from COVID-19.

“Thus, as the economy opens up, the other 55%, who cannot work from home and tend to be lower paid, will face either health risks – returning to work before the virus is under control – or economic risks – delaying work until the environment is safe, which may exhaust their resources,” the researchers say.

For those who do have occupations that can allow for remote work, if anything the ability to actually work from home goes up slightly as a worker grows older, the researchers write. That statistic on its own does not share the full story, however, though the general idea is that older workers enjoy just as much — if not slightly more — feasibility in working remotely.

“These results say nothing about employees’ comfort level with working remotely,” they write. “But given the enormous increase in technological competence among older workers, the occupational characteristics probably provide a pretty good picture of the feasibility of working from home.”

This is why the findings of this research present a good news/bad news proposition for older workers, according to researchers.

“If one’s starting assumption was that older workers were less likely to work in occupations that can be done remotely, then the findings by age are indeed good news,” the researchers write. “On the other hand, the fact that about 55% of older workers cannot work remotely means that many may face reentering what they view as unsafe work environments.”

For lower-paid older workers, this presents a particular problem as the American economy opens up more widely.

“Given that low-paid workers are less likely to be in occupations where they can work remotely, the opening up of the economy means that they will face either the health risk of returning to work before the virus is under control or the economic risk of exhausting their resources,” the researchers write.

Read the research brief at the Center for Retirement Research.