Working after retirement age: who benefits?

Recent reforms have made it unlawful for employers to force their workers to retire. So what are the reasons why some people stay on after state pension age while others choose to leave? How do those decisions affect quality of life for those who stay, and for those who go? A study by Giorgio Di Gessa and colleagues at King’s College London and the University of Manchester sheds new light on the issue.

We know that more of us are working after we reach retirement age – but until now we haven’t known much about how people make that decision, or about what effect it has on their sense of wellbeing afterwards.

In our research, we used English data from a panel study of older people to find out more about who chooses to stay on in work and why. We then went on to ask whether those who chose to work felt differently about their lives when compared with those who felt they had to work.

We took a representative sample of 2,500 men aged 65 to 74 and women aged 60 to 69 who had previously been in work, and we found one fifth of them still had paid jobs. Of those, two thirds had chosen to continue to work because they enjoyed their jobs or because they wanted to keep fit and active. The other third said they worked for financial reasons: either they couldn’t afford to retire or they wanted to improve their pension provision for later.

We placed the retired respondents into three groups: Those who had had a ‘normal’ retirement when they became eligible for a state pension (28 per cent), those who felt they had to retire because of ill-health or redundancy (2 per cent); and those who retired voluntarily – because they could afford to do so or because they wanted to spend more time with their family, for instance (28 per cent).

Quality of life

On average, those who had retired experienced a lower quality of life, when measured on the CASP-19 scale for older people. The highest quality of life was reported by those who had stayed in work voluntarily, while the lowest was reported by those who had retired involuntarily. The gap in quality of life between these two groups is similar to the one observed between respondents who said they had a long-standing illness and those who did not. As expected, respondents who were financially better off also had higher quality of life scores.

When we considered changes in these CASP-19 scores over time, we found that on average people experienced a drop in their quality of life over a six-year period between two ‘waves’ of the study: about a quarter experienced a decrease of 5 points or more whereas just over 16% experienced an improvement of 5 or more points. Those working voluntarily experienced a slight increase in their quality of life when they eventually retired. On the other hand, the wellbeing of those who were working out of necessity did not improve after retirement.

Health benefits

As one might expect, the scores improved among those whose health got better after retirement, and worsened among those whose health deteriorated.

It’s worth noting that our study sample is skewed towards the more advantaged – the proportion with no qualifications is significantly lower than in the census. It is therefore likely that our study underestimates the percentage of people who work out of financial necessity.

What does our study tell us about working after retirement age? In particular, it reminds us how important it is for people to feel they have control over these key decisions about their lives. Those who continue working because they have to have lower quality of life than those who continue working because they want to – and even once those people have retired, this wellbeing gap is likely to persist.

We know that people who experience a higher quality of life tend to be healthier and to live longer.

Government initiatives aimed at helping workers maintain control over their decisions are worthwhile – but policymakers should also consider how people might be given more support throughout their lives to protect their financial and personal wellbeing if they do have to work for longer.

Further information

The decision to work after State Pension Age and how it affects Quality of Life: Evidence from a 6-year English panel study is a research paper by Giorgio Di Gessa of King’s College London, Laurie Corna of King’s College London, Debora Price of the University of Manchester and Karen Glaser of King’s College London. It is published in the journal Age & Ageing.

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