Healthy pensioners: Is working in our 60s good for us?

Pension ages in the UK are rising from the traditional 65 for men and 60 for women, as people live longer. But is working in later life good for us? The Government’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies says people aged 50-70 are more likely to stay healthy if they stay in work, but what does the evidence show? Dr Giorgio Di Gessa from the London School of Economics and Political Science and colleagues have investigated how being in paid work beyond state pension age affects our physical and mental health and how well we sleep and find a different story.

By 2020, it is estimated that one third of workers will be over 50. By then the state pension age will also have risen to 66 for everyone in the UK, climbing to 67 by 2028.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal more than 1.2 million over-65s remain in work, an increase of nearly 50 per cent since the Default Retirement Age was banned in 2011, meaning employers cannot make staff retire when they reach state pension age.

With so many older people working, and with UK policies, and those of other western nations, designed to extend working lives, it is important to understand how continuing to work might affect our health.

Many studies have shown that working is good for physical and mental health in adults of normal working age. There is also evidence that retirement can be good for health. But little research has focused on the impact on health of working beyond State Pension age.

A previous study using the British Household Panel Survey suggests those working beyond state pension age self-report better health, but their lifetime health history was not studied. Given that healthier people are more likely to stay working, this needs to be taken into account for a more accurate picture.

Previous work history is also important, as there is evidence of poorer health among those with significant periods out of work. This is also likely to affect decisions about whether to continue working in later life.

Working longer

Using information on more than 1,600 people from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, we looked at the health and employment histories of men aged 65 to 74, and women aged 60 to 69. After those ages few men or women worked. Around a quarter of the women and 15 per cent of the men worked past State Pension age.

Participants in the study were asked if they had difficulties falling or staying asleep and whether they felt tired on waking up. Their grip strength was measured, and they also rated their own health, reporting any medical problems such as a long standing illness, heart disease, stroke, or loss of mobility.

For those who were employed, we looked at whether they worked more or less than 20 hours each week, and whether they had sedentary or active jobs. We also looked for differences between those in managerial and professional occupations through to those with routine and manual jobs.

Periods of unemployment for men and part-time working and career breaks for women were taken into account, together with the individual’s education, wealth, housing situation, marital status, caring responsibilities and factors like smoking and exercising.

Good health

Men and women in good health were more likely to be working past state pension age, as were those with a better education and those who had been in better health throughout their lives . Among women, those who were divorced or separated, still had mortgages and were not carers were more likely to continue working.

One third of those working beyond state pension age were in managerial positions, 45 per cent worked part-time, and one third of men and 41 per cent of women had a desk job. Men and women who worked throughout their lives were more likely to continue working after state pension age.

Men and women in paid work were less likely to be depressed or to have disturbed sleep, and reported better physical health, than those who didn’t work.

However, when social background, and previous health and employment histories were taken into account, we did not find any significant health benefits of working past state pension age. This is most likely to be because only a select group of healthy older adults work beyond this age.

Population health

What is clear is that the decision and ability to continue working past state pension age is strongly affected by current and lifetime health.

Overall, our study shows that extending our working lives has no effect on our health. However, it remains an open question whether changing the state pension age could worsen population health if everyone, including those in poor health, is required to work longer.

To support policies aimed at extending working lives, it will be essential for governments to focus on health promotion and policies which help to improve the health of the population throughout their working life.

Going forward it would be useful to know more about the reasons people continue working. Is it through choice or because they need the money? It would also be good to look at the timing of previous poor health to see at what stage ill health stops people from working.

Further information

Is being in paid work beyond state pension age beneficial for health? Evidence from England using a life-course approach is research by Giorgio Di Gessa of the London School of Economics and Political Science, Laurie Corna of King’s College London, Loretta Platts of Stockholm University, Diana Worts and Peggy McDonough of the University of Toronto, Amanda Sacker of University College London, Debora Price of the University of Manchester, and Karen Glaser of King’s College London. It is published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Photo credit: Farmer stepping into cab, United Soybean

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