A secure, comfortable and healthy retirement is something most of us aspire to. But, as we live longer, we are all being encouraged to work later, increasingly well into our late 60s, so what might that mean for those aspirations, particularly the desire to be fit and healthy? Whilst the number crunchers have done their homework about how the sums add up around the available money to support more retired people for longer, very little is known about how working longer will impact on our health and what the knock on personal, societal and economic costs of that might be. Peggy McDonough at the University of Toronto, together with colleagues at UCL and Kings College, has been using US data to get a clearer picture of what the latter part of working life and health look like for men and women. Here she explains the research and why flexible working policies, particularly those concerning part-time work, could be key to ensuring a healthy retirement is a reality as well as an aspiration.
Across the developed world falling birth rates and the so-called ‘baby-boom’ cohort’s retirement have raised the spectre of unsustainable State pension costs. This has led to a range of reforms, many of which have seen a rise in the age at which we can collect State Pension. In the UK in 2020, men and women will have to wait till they are 66; this will rise to 68 by 2028. In the States, the age will be 67 in 2027. In addition, other incentives to work longer and disincentives to take our pensions earlier have been trialled or introduced.
What we don’t know much about is what the health consequences are of stepping up the workplace participation of older adults. Will working longer make our health better or worse? And what if those consequences undermine other social and economic goals, such as those around wellbeing and inequality? In addition, are there differences in the way these things play out for women and men?
Research to date has tended to focus on retirement as an exact or single point in time, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the more complex things happening during the run up to and after retirement. Findings are also ambiguous and it’s not clear whether retiring early, partial retirement or working longer is generally associated with better health.
Our research looks across a much longer period, viewing retirement more as a project that unfolds over time and drilling down into what is going on as we move from the ‘family- and career-building years’ to the ‘frailty years of old age’. This way we hope to get a better and more nuanced picture of how our work and our health interact over this part of our life and get some pointers about what seems to work best when it comes to staying as healthy as possible into the Third Age.
Patterns of work
Our data come from the Health and Retirement Study, which has collected information from more than 25,000 Americans aged 50 + since 1992. Working with the original cohort, all of whom were born between 1931-41, we examined the working lives and health of some 6,500 men and women over 18 years.
It was interesting to see that only 14 per cent of the men in our study followed a ‘conventional’ path involving full-time work until retirement at around 65 years of age. More of them (21 per cent) acted in line with recent policy initiatives and worked longer or did the complete opposite and retired in their early 60s (18 per cent). Slightly less than one in ten men stayed working but shifted from full to part-time work; it was rare for men to have had a substantial period of the time in part-time work.
Less than half as many women (10 per cent) worked full-time throughout the period. They were three times more likely than the men in the study to have worked part-time from the outset. The largest proportion, double that for men, was not working across this period, but, if they were, they were more likely to retire around the age of 62 than 65.
Health at 70
When we took into consideration a range of other background factors, like education, income, marital status, and minority background, we could start to get a picture of the most ‘advantaged’ people in terms of health.
One group of men stood out: those who downshifted from full-time to part-time work around age 65 had the lowest chance of being in poor health at age 70. Women were slightly different: being in work (either part-time or full-time) was associated with the best health, as was retiring in the early to mid 60s. Women in long-term part-time work were especially advantaged.
At the other end of the spectrum, men retired early or worked very little in middle age were more likely to have poor health than others. The same was true for women.
Downshifting is key for men; long-term part-time work, for women
Whilst it was interesting to note that long-term part-time work for men was not linked with better health for men when it was for women, we think that is probably because for this generation, women (traditionally caregiver) would have perhaps engaged in part-time work through choice, whilst for men (traditionally breadwinner) the reason may have been linked to earlier poor health.
Our research certainly provides a more detailed picture of how people’s working lives pan out in their fifties and sixties and shows quite clearly that men who are able to shift to part-time work in their 60s are most likely to have better health in their 70s whilst for women a long-term part-time arrangement seems to reap the most health benefits.
In short, it seems there may be considerable health benefits to part-time work but in ways that play out slightly differently for men and women. It should provoke interesting discussions among employers, unions, policy makers in the areas of employment and health and, of course workers themselves as they think about the sort of retirement they want and the options they have (or don’t have) when it comes to flexible working.
Given that less than 10 per cent of men and less than 5 per cent of women in our study followed these ‘optimum’ pathways for better health in their 70s, it’s an area that could serve as a real focus in the coming months, preferably before the pension reforms outlined earlier come into force.
Later-life employment trajectories and health is research by Peggy McDonough, Diana Worts, Laurie M. Corna, Anne McMunn, and Amanda Sacker and is published in the journal, Advances in Life Course Research.