By Chris Adams

Retirement ages in the U.S. have been creeping up in recent years, and there are plenty of people who want to keep working – for the money, for the social engagement, for the sense of professional accomplishment.

But as Richard Johnson of the Urban Institute said, that’s not a possibility for many people in the workforce. And more likely than not, the folks who can’t work are also the ones who – for financial reasons – most need to.

“Despite the general improvement in health status, there is a substantial share of the population that can’t work,” said Johnson, who directs the institute’s Program on Retirement Policy. “The ones who would benefit the most from working longer are the ones who are more likely to develop health problems that prevent it.”

Indeed, a quarter of people in their 50s will have health problems that limit their ability to work, Johnson said in a session with National Press Foundation fellows. In their early 60s, about 40 percent of people have those limiting health conditions.

On top of that are other barriers: family obligations and care-giving burdens, which tend to affect women more than men.

The net result, Johnson said, is an increase in income inequality at older ages. Over the past 20 years, most of the gains in income among those over age 62 are in those who are healthy.

“We are seeing a pretty sharp divide in people who have health problems and those who don’t,” he said. “Working longer is a great thing – but it is something that is out of reach for some people.”

Johnson studies job loss at older ages and the prospects for people finding work after age 50. He writes extensively about retirement preparedness and the adequacy of the disability safety net. He also studies pension plans, and recently evaluated public pension plans in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.