Applying for Disability When You're Under Age 50

It's difficult, but not impossible, to get Social Security disability when you're in your forties, thirties, or even twenties.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

The Social Security Administration (SSA) doesn't have a minimum age requirement to qualify for disability benefits like Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Any adult or child who has a medical condition that has seriously interfered with their daily activities for at least a year can potentially get benefits. But if you're under 50 years old, you might find it more difficult to get the SSA to approve your application.

How Old Do You Have to Be to Qualify for Disability?

While you don't need to be a certain age in order to qualify for disability, the SSA uses different standards, based on age, to determine whether you're disabled.

Depending on how old you are, the SSA will classify your application based on the following age categories:

  • child applicant (under age 18)
  • younger individual (ages 18 to 49)
  • closely approaching advanced age (ages 50-54)
  • advanced age (ages 55-60), and
  • closely approaching retirement age (ages 60-64).

At any adult age category, you'll have to show that you have a medical condition that has prevented you from earning above substantial gainful activity (SGA) for at least one year. For more information on the standards for minors, see our article on disability benefits for children.

Impact of Age on SSDI and SSI

Getting disability as a younger individual can be hard, but it's not impossible. Most younger individuals who are found disabled were able to show that they couldn't work even the least demanding jobs. One of the benefits of turning 50 is that the SSA can find you disabled even if you can physically perform easier work, but you don't know how to do it (and can't learn).

Adults under the age of 50 who apply for SSDI or SSI can be awarded disability benefits in one of two ways:

  • Your condition meets or equals a listed impairment ("medically disabled"), or
  • Your condition prevents you from working full-time at any job ("vocationally disabled").

If you're over the age of 50—or are close enough under the borderline age rule—Social Security will use a set of criteria known as the medical-vocational grid to determine if you're disabled. There is one exception where the grid will be used for people under 50: for people ages 45-49 who are illiterate, limited to sit-down jobs, and don't have any skills from past work. The agency will find them disabled under the grid.

No matter what age category you belong to, you'll have to show that you can't return to any of the jobs you've done in the past. If the SSA thinks you can do your past relevant work, the agency can't award you benefits.

Getting Disability Under Age 50 by Meeting or Equaling a Listing

Some medical conditions are so severe that—if your record contains certain medical evidence —the SSA can find you automatically disabled without having to determine that you can't do any job. In Social Security lingo, these conditions meet or equal a listed impairment.

While meeting or equaling a listing is one of the quickest ways that the SSA can find you disabled, it's also one of the hardest. Each listed impairment has specific detailed requirements that need to be present in your medical records before the agency can find you disabled. For more information, see our section on using the Social Security listings.

Getting Disability Under Age 50 By Showing That You Can't Work

Even if your medical records don't contain the information needed to meet a listing, Social Security can still find you disabled if your limitations prevent you from working. The agency will look at your medical records and your activities of daily living (ADLs) to determine your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC contains restrictions on what you're capable of doing, physically and mentally, in a work setting.

The SSA acknowledges that people over 50 might not have enough time before full retirement age to learn how to do another job, so the agency can use the medical-vocational grid to find an older person disabled even if they have an RFC that allows them to physically perform other work.

But for most people under the age of 50, the SSA assumes that you're young enough to shift to an easier job. Generally, you'll need to show Social Security that you can't do the easiest, least demanding types of jobs—what the agency calls sedentary, unskilled work.

How People Under 50 Can Use Their RFC to Show They Can't Work

Depending on your health conditions, your RFC will contain physical limitations, mental limitations, or both. You might also have additional restrictions such as not using your hands to type or pick up small objects, or avoiding loud noises. Social Security will look at the restrictions in your RFC and will rule out all jobs that are outside of your capabilities.

In order to be found disabled, the agency has to find that no jobs exist that you can do with your limitations. Here are several ways for you to show the agency that you can't do any jobs:

You physically can't perform even sedentary work. Social Security classifies all jobs according to exertional level. Exertional levels are defined by how much weight you need to be able to lift and carry at the job and how long you need to be able to stand and walk.

Sedentary (or "sit-down") work is the lowest exertional level. To perform sedentary work, you need to be able to lift and carry up to 10 pounds and be on your feet for 2 hours (out of an 8-hour workday). If you can't lift more than 5 pounds total, or can't stand or walk for a total of 2 hours, you won't be able to perform sedentary work, and the SSA will find you disabled.

You have non-exertional limitations that eliminate all work. Non-exertional limitations aren't restrictions on how much weight you can lift or how long you can walk for, but still interfere with the types of work you can do.

For example, if you struggle to use your fingers due to carpal tunnel syndrome, your RFC might contain a limitation that greatly restricts the amount of typing or writing you can do. Or, you might need to elevate your legs every hour for 15 minutes throughout the day to relieve pain in your lower back. If the SSA finds that no jobs exist in significant numbers where you don't have to use your hands, or are allowed to recline in your chair, the agency will find you disabled.

You're unable to meet the demands of full-time employment. Even the easiest sit-down jobs still require that you show up on time and complete the job duties. Employers will tolerate a certain amount of absenteeism and unproductive ("off-task") behavior, but only up to a point.

For example, if you have so much difficulty concentrating due to the side effects of pain medication that you're missing half of your job tasks, or you're calling out sick multiple days per week because you're having depressive episodes, the SSA will find that no employer would hire you for full-time work, and award you disability benefits.

Combining Impairments to Reduce Your RFC

Social Security is required to consider how the combined effects of all of your limitations affect your ability to do work activities. You might be able to physically lift and carry more than 10 pounds, but have difficulty performing necessary activities such as interacting with your coworkers and grasping small objects. Even if you wouldn't be found disabled based on your exertional level alone, when taken together, your limitations can result in no available jobs.

For more information, see our articles on using a combination of impairments and combining severe and non-severe impairments to win your disability claim.

Getting an Attorney's Help

Applicants in their twenties, thirties, or forties can face an uphill battle for disability benefits. Even if you have a consistent treatment record and a medical source statement from your doctor, disability claims examiners and administrative law judges can be skeptical that younger applicants can't perform any jobs.

Consider hiring an experienced disability attorney or advocate to help you with your application. Your attorney can help collect and review your medical evidence, submit it to Social Security, and make arguments on your behalf at a disability hearing.

Updated August 9, 2022

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