NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Is Manual Labor Bad for your Health?

"The rate at which health deteriorates with age is faster in manual occupations than in non-manual occupations. For many people, work wears out their health."

Despite the fact that women live longer than men on average, women around the world report worse health than men until age 60-65. After that, self-reported health declines more slowly for both men and women. But splitting up the population by income changes the pattern. At age 20, men in the bottom income quartile report worse health than men in the top income quartile at age 50. And, although women in the bottom income quartile initially report worse health than men, after age 50 they report better health than men.

In Broken Down by Work and Sex (NBER Working Paper No. 9821), authors Anne Case and Angus Deaton use self-reported health status from the National Health Interview Survey to describe how individual health varies by age, occupation, and sex. Case and Deaton find that for both women and men, manual laborers report a more rapid decline in health than professionals. And, much of the difference in self-reported health status across the income distribution can be explained by health-related absences from the labor force. So that while it may be true that being poor makes people sick, it is also true that being sick makes you less able to work, and lowers your income -- so that much of the strong relationship between ill-health and poverty comes from poor health making you poor.

To untangle the relationship between work, earnings, health, and education, the authors examine health over the life cycle and explore the relationship between the rate at which health deteriorates at any given age, individual investments in health maintenance, and the rate at which the "stock of health" declines. Perhaps their most important finding from the data is that the rate at which health deteriorates with age is faster in manual occupations than in non-manual occupations. For many people, work wears out their health.

-- Linda Gorman


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