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College Grads Retire 3 Years Later Than Less-Educated Workers

Quitting earlier leaves high school grads with smaller savings and benefits

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College graduates tend to work longer than high school graduates, and the gap in retirement ages is growing.

En español | Since the late 1970s, the gap has widened between the average retirement age of male college graduates and that of those with only a high school diploma, with better-educated people continuing to work nearly three years longer, according to a paper published by Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research.

Male college graduates typically retire at age 65.7 and high school graduates at age 62.8—a disparity of 2.9 years, according to the paper’s author, research economist Matthew S. Rutledge, who compiled Census Bureau data from 1976 to 2016. Four decades ago, the gap was just six months. 

The picture is more complicated for women, according to the paper, because of the change in their workforce participation during the second half of the 20th century. But as with men, the gap in retirement ages by education has grown “substantially,” Rutledge wrote.

The difference can have a big impact on retirement income, Rutledge said in an email. Those who stop working and claim Social Security benefits earlier receive smaller benefits. They also miss a chance to accumulate more savings, plus employer matching funds, in retirement accounts. And they lose employer-provided health insurance benefits.

Rutledge said many less-educated workers quit earlier because they’re more likely to be in poor health. Their jobs tend to require more heavy lifting, repetitive movements and standing, making it tougher to keep working as they age. Also, they tend to have less ability to change their schedules or take time off, making a gradual transition to retirement more difficult.

In contrast, “higher-educated people have greater bargaining power within their companies to negotiate partial retirement or reduce their workloads and responsibilities, because even in those reduced roles they're still seen as valuable enough to keep around,” Rutledge said.

He said less-educated workers should start thinking early about retraining for an eventual switch to less physically taxing jobs.

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