For some people, working life comes to an end because the job is causing problems at home. Others may decide to leave – or be forced to leave – because family responsibilities are interfering with their ability to do their job. But what are the gender differences in these scenarios? Baowen Xue and colleagues from the RenEWL project at UCL found that experiencing work-family conflict influenced men and women differently.
The Government’s desire to extend our working lives is one of the most significant policy developments in recent times. Its decisions on retirement age could potentially make us healthier and wealthier, but they could also lead to greater inequality.
So, it’s important to understand the interplay, and the potential conflict, between work and home. What happens when the work-life balance just isn’t working? And who bears the brunt of that? Our new evidence suggests that where there’s a work-family conflict it’s more often women who compromise by leaving the world of work – even though their less generous pension provision might suggest they have a greater need to stay.
The population in most western societies has been ageing for the last few decades and resulting pressures on social benefits systems have increased interest in explaining when and why older people leave work. Previous studies have looked for links between leaving work and marital status, for instance, or number of dependent children. But we wanted to go further, measuring the problem over time, studying older workers in their late career stage, and looking at other factors such as health and working conditions.
These issues cut both ways, of course – for some, a heavy workload may cause problems by interfering with the time they have available for family. For others, caring for an older relative might be incompatible with work responsibilities. Either problem could have knock-on effects, such as lessening job satisfaction, forcing workers to take time off or even to quit.
There’s lots of evidence that both poor working conditions and stresses in the family are linked to early retirement, but what about these work-family conflicts? We used data from a major study of British civil servants to look at how such issues might relate to people leaving work in the later stages of their careers.
Over the last few decades, women have established themselves in the workplace, but men have been much slower to take up more domestic labour (Sullivan, 2000). Working women are often found to be primarily responsible for their families.
And men and women often have different experiences of work. When men leave their jobs, they are leaving roles that have typically dominated their whole adulthood. Women, however, are more likely to have moved in and out of the labour force and part-time jobs while managing shifting household responsibilities.
So, stopping work may have different meanings for men and women. Women, too, are less likely than men to be covered by a pension – and they may therefore be less inclined to hang on in there when family responsibilities are pressing.
We used the Whitehall II study, which followed civil servants based in London in the late 1980s and who were aged 35 to 55 when recruited to the study. We looked at data gathered from those participants during a 10-year period from the early 1990s – a sample of around 7000 people; 5000 men and 2000 women.
They were asked to say whether they felt family interfered with their work – or work with family –not at all, to some extent or a great deal, with a further category for those who didn’t have family or who felt the question was not applicable to them. They were also asked questions about whether they felt work interfered with family.
We classified those who were not working during follow-up interviews as having left due to long- sickness, retirement, unemployment or homemaking and other reasons.
We found there were significant gender differences in the decision to leave work for family reasons, whether because work was clashing with family or vice versa.
Women who experienced family interference with work were more likely to retire or leave to be a homemaker. Whereas men were more likely to stay in work if they felt family interfered with their work. Conversely, we did not find any significant link between men’s decisions to leave and a sense that work was affecting their family life. And indeed, the likelihood of retiring was lower among men who felt family was interfering with their work.
Women, though, were significantly more likely to leave work through either retirement or the homemaker route if they felt work was interfering with family – though these effects disappeared when we took other background factors such as working conditions and their sense of control within the family into account. The decisions women made were partly accounted for by factors such as caring responsibilities and sense of control in the home.
We looked at several factors that might account for relationships between work-family conflict and exit from work. Men and women with one or two dependent children, rather than none, were more likely to retire. Men who had a high degree of agency and control at work were less likely to retire, but such psychosocial working conditions were not connected with women’s retirement. Men and women with lower home control, men with three or more dependent children, and women with caring responsibilities were more likely to leave for family reasons.
We found more women had caring responsibilities than men, but more than twice as many men had dependent children in the household. Women reported higher control at home than men.
Retirement was the most frequent reason for leaving work, with just over four out of five men and just under four out of five women taking this route. More women than men left work for health or home-making reasons, and slightly more men left through unemployment. The average age at leaving was 60 years for men and 59 for women. Female homemakers were youngest when leaving work, on average 56 years.
So why the gender difference? It is possible that where there is a work family conflict for both partners, it is more likely that women will be the ones to compromise and to leave work. As women have fewer financial resources (including pension wealth) and on average contribute fewer earnings to the household than men, they may therefore have less ‘bargaining power’ on work decisions than their male partners.
But that leaves women in a double-bind: they are the ones to leave early, but that diminishes their chances of increasing an already smaller pension pot. So, what can policy-makers do?
Adjustments in the workplace, such as flexible working hours and higher social support, could reduce work-family conflict and help these women to remain in work.
We have known for some time that work-family conflict could be an important issue for younger people with children, but our study underscores the importance of this issue for older people’s labour market participation too. As women tend to retire at a younger age than men, and as pressures on social benefits systems are increasing due to an ageing population, it is important for policy-makers to think hard about finding ways to reduce work-family conflict for women across working life.
Work and family conflict in relation to work exit in later career stage: a 20 years follow-up of Whitehall II study, by Baowen Xue, Maria Fleischmann, Jenny Head, Anne McMunn, and Mai Stafford is published in The Journals of Gerontology.