Does education and job status affect the length of our working lives?

Who is most at risk of leaving work due to poor health? In a major international research project, Ewan Carr from the renEWL team has worked with colleagues at UCL, King’s College and Queen Mary University of London in the UK, INSERM and Paris Descartes University in France and the University of Turku in Finland to find out more about social inequalities and extended working life. Based on information from nearly 100,000 employees from seven studies in four countries, the research found employees with low levels of education or low occupational grade (e.g. unskilled or manual jobs) to be more likely to leave work for health reasons. While past studies have shown there is socioeconomic inequality in the ways that working lives come to an end, few have compared these trends across different countries.

Across Europe, ageing populations have forced governments to look at ways of extending working lives. As people stay healthier for longer, raising the state pension age has become a priority in a number of countries – in the UK this reform has already been implemented.

But this change is likely to be particularly challenging for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, who are known to lose both physical and mental ability more quickly as they age.

Planning for later life

There’s a double-bind here for this group. They’re more likely to be unable, through ill health, to continue to work in later life. But they’re also less likely to have the resources they need to keep them out of poverty in retirement.

People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may have contributed less to their pension funds, and so may have to work even if they don’t want to, or if their health makes it difficult for them to do so.

Meanwhile those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are likely to have bigger pension pots but also to have better health, which allows them to work for longer. They have a further advantage in that they are likely to have jobs they enjoy and which have more security – so they’re less likely to be forced into retirement or unemployment.

We wanted to find out more about this: would similar levels of poor health have a disproportionate effect on those who were less well educated, or who had lower-status jobs? If two people had the same health issues but had different social status, would one be more likely than the other to stay in work for longer?

Other studies have looked at these issues, but they had limitations. They tended to focus on single countries – or in some cases on the Nordic countries as a group – and weren’t necessarily applicable elsewhere. They often used things like disability benefit as a measure of work exit, and again these weren’t always the same from one country to another.

Work exit

Previous studies found people at both ends of the occupational ladder were more likely than those in the middle to extend their working lives, but for different reasons. Put bluntly, those at the top chose to continue working; those at the bottom were forced to do so.

We looked at data from seven independent studies in Finland, France, the UK and the USA. Some of these were drawn from representative samples of the whole population, while others looked at specific groups – for instance, the Whitehall II study in the UK followed a large group of civil servants over several decades. All the studies were based on people who were in paid work at around the age of 50. In total, our study covered almost 100,000 people.

We considered two measures of social status – level of education, and level of occupation. We assessed retirement age and route (i.e. whether it was for health reasons or not) using respondents’ own reports of their retirement as well as company and administrative records and benefits information.

Overall,wefound those with lower levels of education were more likely to leave work for health reasons – this effect could be seen for men in all the studies and for women in most. Lower occupational grades were also strongly linked to leaving work for health reasons.

These findings have important implications for policymakers, who usually calculate retirement age by sex but who don’t take into account factors such as family circumstances or social status. Policies which seek to extend working lives for all are likely to place those with lower socioeconomic status at a disadvantage – especially in countries where the benefits system doesn’t do much to help those who must leave because of ill-health. This study underlines a need both for greater flexibility in polices that extend working life and for greater recognition of the barriers faced by those from less privileged backgrounds.

Further information

Occupational and educational inequalities in exit from employment at older ages: evidence from seven prospective cohortsis research by Ewan Carr, Maria Fleischmann, Marcel Goldberg, Diana Kuh, Emily T Murray, Mai Stafford, Stephen Stansfield, Jussi Vahtera, Bowen Xue, Paola Zaninotto, Marie Zins and Jenny Head. It was first published in the journalOccupational & Environmental Medicine on March 12, 2018.

The studies used in the research were:

British Household Panel Survey https://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/bhps

English Longitudinal Study of Ageing http://www.elsa-project.ac.uk/

1946 National Survey of Health and Development http://www.nshd.mrc.ac.uk/

Whitehall II study http://www.ucl.ac.uk/iehc/research/epidemiology-public-health/research/whitehallII

Finnish Public Sector study, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health https://www.ttl.fi/en/

GAZEL cohort http://www.gazel.inserm.fr/en/

Health and Retirement Study http://hrsonline.isr.umich.edu/

Having a family – how might the decision affect the length of your working life?

Across the developed world, people are living longer. In response to this, governments are looking for ways to encourage people to work for longer. In the UK, the State Pension age is being raised and future generations will have little choice but to work. But how will the decisions they made earlier in life – whether and when to have a family – affect their later employment prospects? A new study from the RenEWL project by Dr Mai Stafford and colleagues at UCL and Queen Mary University of London has some answers.

Many of the post-war baby boom generation retired before the State Pension age began to rise. But subsequent generations must plan for longer working lives, and government policy needs to find ways to facilitate that.

We know more people are living longer, and we know that our decisions about having a family can affect the likelihood of us staying in work for longer. But we wanted to get a more nuanced view of how family and working lives can interact.

Would those who delayed starting a family until their thirties be more likely to work into their late sixties? How would those who never had children differ from those who did? And how would the prospects of women who took time out of the workplace be affected by that decision as they neared State Pension age?

We looked at data from the MRC National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD) which has followed the lives of more than 5,000 people born within a single week in 1946. Participants have been studied 24 times during their lives from birth, through childhood and adulthood, and most recently when they were aged 68-69 – at which point more than 2,700 people responded. The men in the study reached state pension age at 65; the women at 60.

We found that almost half the men had been continuously married with children and in full-time work since their early twenties. Women’s lives tended to vary more, with the largest group working full-time until their early twenties then taking time out to raise a family before working part-time and then returning to full-time work in their late thirties.

In their early sixties, just over two thirds of women and a third of men were not in paid work.

Women who did work at this age were more likely to be in part-time work, while men were more likely to be in full-time work. By the age of 68-69, just one in five men and one in 10 women were still in paid work.

 Work and family

Those who became fathers in their early twenties and who had jobs were more likely to be in full-time work at age 60-64 than men who remained single and childless. They were also more likely to be in work at age 68-69 than men who had partners and jobs but no children.

When we looked at how the age at which participants had their children affected their later employment, we found this made no difference for men. But women who had children later were more likely to be in full-time work at age 60-64 than those who had them earlier.

Having children early then returning to full-time work after a break, rather than continuous work through the childrearing years, made no difference to women’s later employment prospects.

We considered whether these differences might be driven by earlier health and socioeconomic circumstances that result in different kinds of family-work patterns. The links between work-family patterns and later life work participation remained when we statistically controlled for childhood health, educational attainment and childhood socioeconomic factors.

Why did the age of family formation make a difference? Women who have their children later may still be providing financial support to them in their sixties – though if so we would expect that men who had children later would also be more likely to be in paid employment, and this was not the case.

Women who became mothers later may also have started working later – possibly because they stayed in education longer – and therefore might have accrued less pension entitlement by age 60-64, though we do not think this fully explains the difference because we controlled for educational attainment.

British baby-boomers

So, what can this cohort of British baby-boomers tell us about how family decisions affect later working lives? We found that the timing of having children was related to women’s but not men’s employment in later life.

Both men and women who remained childless, regardless of whether they had a partner, were less likely to be in paid work in their sixties than those who had children.

And both men and women who worked full-time and neither had children nor a partner were also less likely than their peers to be still in paid work after the age of 60, though women in this group who were still working were more likely than men to be working part-time.

Mothers who returned to work were more likely to be in work in their sixties, while becoming a father made no difference to a man’s prospects.

It’s important for policymakers who have an interest in extending our working lives to consider these results. Mothers, and parents more generally, may stay in the work-force in later life if they have access to jobs which allow them to combine family and work. Our study underlines the need for both part-time jobs and flexible working to be available to parents.

Work–family life course patterns and work participation in later life is research by Mai Stafford, Rebecca Lacey, Emily Murray, Ewan Carr, Maria Fleischmann, Stephen Stansfeld, Baowen Xue, Paola Zaninotto, Jenny Head, Diana Kuh and Anne McMunn and is published in the European Journal of Ageing.