Tag Archives: Flexible working

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.

Never too early to intervene to get us working longer

Working for longer is something we are all having to get our heads around. It’s certainly a priority for the Government, which wants to encourage more older people into satisfying jobs that will help them stay happy and healthy as they age. For older people already in good jobs that they enjoy, who have been fit and active for most or all their life, this could be a great opportunity for them and their families. Of course that’s not the case for everyone. Dr Charlotte Clark has been looking at what having poor mental health as a child could mean for our working life in our mid fifties. Here she explains why policy makers and businesses need to pay close attention to the mental wellbeing of the nation if they want to extend people’s working lives successfully.

Working beyond traditional retirement age has been the focus of much attention in recent years as policy makers, businesses and working people across the UK get used to the idea that more of us need to work for longer to take account of the fact that more and more of us are living longer and that this reality comes at a cost.

As things stand, by their mid fifties, many people are not in work because of early retirement, long-term sickness or disability, being or becoming unemployed or because they are long term homemakers. So the onus for working longer tends to fall on those who stay employed through all or most of their lives. But could more be done to encourage and support those most likely not to be working at 55 to do so and then to continue to do so?

Looking right across people’s lives to track what may have influenced a person to leave or not be working at 55 provides us with a much clearer and more nuanced picture than a simple snapshot in time. We wanted to see whether having poor mental health as a child or as an adult might be an important part of that picture and give us some ideas for interventions that could extend the working lives of this group of people in a way that would benefit them and society more widely.

Increasing psychological support

It’s fair to say that the Government’s ambitions to get more people working for longer have been laid out quite clearly already, as has their commitment to putting people’s physical and mental health on an equal footing. Saying that, their commitment has been called into question recently in a report from The King’s Fund, which says parity is a long way off.

When it comes to specific groups not working, the Department for Work and Pensions has tended to focus its attention on benefit claimants rather than other groups who, for one reason or another may choose not to work – housewives and husbands for example.

Government initiatives to try to help people with mental health problems find work have included the ‘Improving Access to Psychosocial Therapies’ (IAPT) programme, which has increased provision of therapies for benefit claimants with depressive and anxiety disorders.

Evaluations of IAPT suggest that ‘Nationally, of [adult] people that finished a course of treatment in IAPT, 45% recover. . . and a further 16% show reliable improvement’. Encouraging results that have led to modest increases in employment, and it’s hoped there will be more positive news on this front.

However, things don’t look quite so encouraging when it comes to younger people with mental health problems and that’s what our research is shining a spotlight on. It’s also an area we believe should be a focus for policy makers and those working with young people including parents and schools. After all, successfully extending people’s working lives can only be done once they successfully enter and then remain in employment. This is less likely for youngsters with poor mental health.

55-year survey

We used information from the National Child Development Study which has followed the lives of thousands of people born in 1958, and collected detailed information about their lives and circumstances.

This included their employment situation and, first and foremost, we were able to see that, at age 55, nearly 19 per cent of the 9,000 participants in the study were not working: 2.8 per cent were unemployed, 5.2 per cent were permanently sick, 3.3 per cent were retired and 7.5 per cent were homemaker/other.

From a very young age, the study also collected information on whether the individuals in the study exhibited signs of depression or worry, whether they were hostile, disobedient or aggressive.

Even when we took account of a wide range of other things such as whether they suffered poor mental health as young or older adults, numbers of other children in the household, whether their partner was employed, qualifications etc. the association with problems as a child were still really strong.

Drilling down into whether those mental health issues were ‘internalized’ or ‘externalized’, we were able to see that those who were depressed or anxious as children were about one and a half times more likely to be unemployed or permanently sick as their peers without problems.

It was a similar story for those who had shown externalised signs such as aggression. They were more than twice as likely to be unemployed or permanently sick, and also more likely to fall into the homemakers/other category too.

Interestingly there was no strong link between poor mental health in childhood and taking early retirement or being employed part-time.

Children’s mental health

Of course there is a lot more at play in children’s lives than we have taken account of in this study. Nevertheless, it is clear from our research that addressing the mental health problems of the very youngest in society could and should be an area for focus and schools, together with parents and those with a responsibility for the wellbeing of young children have key roles to play here.

It seems it is never too early to intervene proactively to try to help young people get and stay on a healthy happy path that will lead to them a productive and satisfying working life that extends well beyond the age of 55. Equally, given that people identifying themselves as ‘homemakers’ rather than unemployed are the largest group not working at age 55, policy makers could consider ways to get this economically inactive group into the workplace, in tandem with its efforts to support the mental health of those people on benefits.

There is also a message here for policy makers about just how important it is to make those promises about parity of esteem between mental and physical health a reality sooner rather than later.

Impact of childhood and adulthood psychological health on labour force participation and exit in later life is research by Charlotte Clark and colleagues and is published in Psychological Medicine. The research is part of the ESRC funded Research on Extended Working Lives (RenEWL) programme at UCL.

 

A question of support: working longer and what works

As more of us work for longer, it’s important to recognise the needs of older workers: and that includes the fact that as we age we are more likely to suffer from long-term illnesses. To what extent do our working conditions affect our decisions about whether or not to continue in a job despite having a chronic disease? Maria Fleischmann, research associate in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London, has been asking what might help to prolong working life for older people. Could factors such as having supportive colleagues and managers, or a clear understanding of who does what, make a difference?

There is strong evidence that people with long-term illnesses leave work early. While three quarters of healthy European 50-somethings have jobs, the figure from those with chronic disease is much lower. Among those with one condition such as diabetes or heart disease, the employment level is around 70 per cent – and for those with two or more that drops to around 50 per cent. Conversely, those who are able to stay well are significantly more likely to continue working beyond pensionable age.

As our working lives grow longer, it’s important to acknowledge that older workers with chronic diseases may have different needs from those who are well – they may not be able to work such long hours, for instance.

So, what are the factors that can make a difference? We know, for instance, that people are likely to remain in work for longer if they have a high level of control over their own hours. Shift workers, on the other hand, are more likely both to become unwell and to leave work early.

Deciding to stay on at work

But what about the factors that are harder to see? What about a worker’s sense of his or her own job stability, or of how harmonious the relationships are between co-workers? Does it help if an employee feels he or she generally knows who does what, or how to respond to a given situation? These types of factors – collectively known as ‘psychosocial factors’ – are also believed to affect peoples’ decisions about whether to stay on at work.

We used data from the Whitehall II study, which has been following the lives, work histories and health experiences of just over 10,000 London-based civil servants since the mid-1980s, when they were all aged 35-55. We looked at the participants in mid-life, around 14 years before retirement age, to see how factors such as levels of autonomy and of support from supervisors or co-workers might affect their decisions if they became ill with diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke or malignant cancer.

And we found that while good ‘psycho-social’ working conditions were helpful generally in supporting workers to stay on in their jobs, they didn’t appear to make any extra difference for those who became ill.

The participants in the Whitehall II study were asked questions such as: ‘Do you have to do the same thing over and over again?’ and ‘Do you have a choice in deciding how to do your work?’ They were also asked whether they felt they had good support from colleagues and superiors and how demanding they felt their job was. They were also asked to describe their level of education, their mental health and whether they had a partner who worked.

We were able to use their answers to assess whether these factors made a difference when they developed illnesses later in life.

Chronic illness

We could see that six out of 10 participants left work between the first phase of the study in 1985 and the last one used for this study, in 2007-9. During the same period the proportion suffering from chronic illness had increased from less than two per cent to almost 30 per cent.

So why had they left, and how might those ‘psychosocial’ working conditions have affected those decisions?

Among the whole group of participants, we found clear evidence that those who felt they had reasons to be happy in their work were more likely to stay on. Specifically, those who felt they were using a wide range of job skills – known as skill discretion – and those who felt they had good social support at work were more likely to stay on for longer.

However, we did not find evidence that those ‘psychosocial’ factors would make more of a difference in whether or not a worker stayed on if he or she were chronically unwell. Or rather, good working conditions were equally important for workers both ill and well.

So, we know that good social and psychological conditions at work are likely to be helpful in keeping employees at work as their careers near their end. And we know that chronic illness is a major reason why people leave work early. But from our study, we cannot say that such good working practices will be a particular deciding factor for those who become unwell.

How and why people leave work

There were some interesting factors in our results: first, we were able to look at the different ways in which people left their jobs, and the reasons why they did so. So those who used a wide range of skills had a reduced risk of leaving work earlier through retirement or ill-health, but this was not related to the risk of leaving work earlier through unemployment; while those who had good social support had a reduced risk of leaving earlier through ill health or unemployment, but not so much when we looked at leaving earlier through retirement.

And while previous studies had tended to measure working conditions at the time of leaving, ours looked at those conditions several years beforehand.

There is certainly scope for more detailed research on this issue – and there is plenty of reason for both researchers and policy advisors to continue to focus on how employers can help chronically ill workers to stay in their jobs.

Can favourable psychosocial working conditions in midlife moderate the risk of work exit for chronically ill workers? A 20-year follow-up of the Whitehall II study is research by Maria Fleischmann, Ewan Carr, Stephen A Stansfeld, Baowen Xue and Jenny Head. It is published in the BMJ Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and is part of the renEWL project on Extended Working Lives.

Unretirement: can it be a positive story for all?

“When I was sitting around at home I would just get grumpy. I’ve also lost five stone since working here. This is like a vitality camp for me.” Retired British Transport Police inspector Brendan McCambridge, 56, interviewed in The Telegraph, describes how his new role at Waitrose has improved his life. He is one of the one in four retired British people who return to paid work, a phenomenon called “unretirement”. New research, led by Dr Loretta G. Platts from Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute, explores who ends up unretiring. In this blog post, she considers the implications for individuals, business and policy of retired older people returning to paid work.

Retirement can be an abrupt and one-way change marking the end of paid work and the start of a time of leisure. But people’s lives often don’t look like this. People may gradually retire over a period of time, or even unretire, returning to paid work after retiring. We found that around one in four retirees in the UK returns to paid work, mostly within five years of retiring.

Our information came from the longitudinal Understanding Society data and its predecessor the British Household Panel Survey. We followed more than 2000 50–69-year-olds through the 1990s and 2000s. Participants were defined as unretiring if they reported retiring and later returned to paid employment, or began full-time work following a period of semi-retirement.

While all sorts of people unretire, men are more likely to unretire than women, as are people in good health and those with post-16 qualifications. Unretirees are also more likely to have a partner in paid work. After ten years, a retiree’s chances of taking up paid work are low.

What motivates unretirement?

Unretirement was a positive experience for Brendan McCambridge. Having a job helps to stay mentally and physically active, provides a meaningful activity, and unretirees often appreciate the social side of paid work. Some may appreciate the extra money earned which supplements a pension and provides funds for little extras. For others, earning money is an important part of the decision to unretire.

Our findings suggest that financial factors play a role in the decision to return to paid work. Retirees paying off a mortgage are more likely to unretire than those who already own their home outright. Unretirees may wish to prepare financially for retirement or to supplement a pension. With a basic state pension of £122.30 per week for people who retired before 6th April 2016, some people may have found a new job because they could not afford to retire.

Former Pensions Minister Steve Webb, now director of policy at Royal London, contends that some retirees may have little other option than to get a job. In an interview for People Management, Webb noted that although many of those heading back to work after retirement do so because they “miss the stimulation and social contact”, there is a “real danger” that a whole generation of people will be unable to retire in the first place because they have not managed to save a big enough pension pot.

He says: “If employers do not address this issue they could find themselves with an unhappy older workforce that does not want to work but cannot afford to stop.”

Why retire and then unretire?

Some people may unretire as a result of finding out that they like being retired a lot less than they thought they would. Researchers call this a “retirement shock”, in which recent retirees, just like Brendan McCambridge, discover that they do not like their new lifestyle.

Others may have known all along that they wanted to remain in paid work, but were unable to. More than one million people over 50 are out of work for reasons beyond their control and would like to be in paid work if the appropriate opportunities were available. Some people may be forced out of work directly or indirectly as a result of age-based stereotypes, in particular through not being offered training programmes to learn new skills, or from their updated skills being undervalued.

In their second Missing Million report, Business in the Community has argued that far too many older people are being denied the chance to enjoy meaningful employment in later life and calls for stronger age discrimination legislation to tackle this.

Employers of older people also often deny them the flexibility they require to stay in paid work. Workers aged between 50 and 69 years are more likely than other age groups to want to work fewer hours than they currently do, even if this were for less pay. Around 8 per cent of workers in their 50s are working more than 45 hours per week while also being in ill health. Such older workers, locked into working long hours, may retire from jobs because they do not offer sufficient flexibility of working times.

Retirees may then take a more suitable job if it comes up, or negotiate more suitable working times later on if their former employer asks them to come back. Dr Jill Miller, diversity and inclusion adviser at the Chartered Institute for Professional Development believes that simple adjustments to working times or job roles could be the key to employers attracting and retaining a “significant talent pool” of older workers who can contribute to the success of the organisation.

Does everybody get to unretire if they want to?

While people in financial straits may be wanting to unretire, we found they did not necessarily manage to. People who were struggling to make ends meet were not more likely to unretire than people in a more comfortable financial situation.

Similarly, those who had lower earnings before retirement were not more likely to unretire. The reason is probably that it is harder for people in a precarious financial situation to find a suitable or good quality job.

These findings are worrying in terms of the broader picture of inequalities in later life. If those retirees who most need to supplement their incomes in later life are not able to find suitable paid work, unretirement may be part of processes that increase inequalities in income between older people.

The findings are also worrying in the context of skills shortages currently faced by British industry, which are predicted to be exacerbated over the coming years. By 2022, the skills gap is expected to reach 7.5 million vacancies. Government and business should not forget about the experience and skills of recently retired workers who are often ready and keen to be re-engaged in the workforce. These workers may need more support and legislation to protect and promote their rights to work more flexibly to take into account their preferences and also the fact that they may be caring for grandchildren and other family members.

Specifically, the government could improve flexible working legislation by providing employees with the right to request flexible working from the start of the job application process, rather than waiting 26 weeks from the beginning of employment. Since older employees are less likely to be offered training, and are less likely to take it up, employers could monitor access to training and development by age as well as proactively offering training to employees and being open to additional training requests.

Where older people manage to find new jobs, it is a result of their own efforts and networks, and not because they accessed effective support. Older people reported in focus groups that Job Centres in particular provided poor guidance and assistance. Government could consider how to develop age-appropriate support services and guidance in Job Centres. Both government and employers could offer mid-life career reviews.

In the long term, we need to work towards a society in which unretirement becomes a positive story for all. Business and wider society stand to benefit from the ambition, experience and skills older people bring to the labour market. For financial and other reasons, many older people want to be in paid work. Currently, they are all too often left out.

Returns to work after retirement: a prospective study of unretirement in the United Kingdom is research by Loretta Platts, Laurie Corna, Diana Worts and Peggy McDonough and is published in Ageing and Society.

Photo credit: Scott Lewis

Breastfeeding and the 24/7 economy: can evenings play a unique role?

Making it easier for women to get back to work after having children has been the ambition of successive UK Governments. A £5m career break returner scheme was launched in the budget just a few weeks ago, with the Prime Minister telling the parenting website Mumsnet that it was neither fair nor did it make economic sense, for women trying to get back into the workplace to find the doors closed to them. At the same time, the Government has acknowledged the considerable benefits to babies and mums of being breastfed. So what does this drive to get mums back to work mean for them, particularly if their job isn’t a standard 9-5 Monday to Friday affair? Afshin Zilanawala from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies has been looking at what working evenings, nights or weekends might mean for mums and children when it comes to breastfeeding to see if this should be factored into our thinking around helping women back to work.

In the last 50 years or so, many more women with children have gone back to work after having their children. The same time period has seen a huge growth in the service sector and it is these two economic changes, which have been credited to the growing phenomenon of nonstandard work i.e working evenings, nights, or weekend shifts. A 2008 report showed that nearly a third of UK employees work evening, night or rotating shifts and that 1/5 work on the weekends. About a quarter of employed mothers work evenings, nights, or rotating shifts and about 18% of these mothers work on the weekends.

In that time, anecdotal information around the benefits and importance of breastfeeding to a child’s early development and mother’s mental and physical health have been supported by an ever growing and increasingly compelling body of evidence. In short, children who are breastfed develop physically and mentally more quickly and are less likely to develop infections or be obese, whilst mums are less likely to suffer post natal depression or develop breast/ovarian cancer.

Given all that, it would be useful for policy makers and parents to better understand whether any particular work patterns or schedules are more or less associated with women breastfeeding and for us all to get to grips with how working nonstandard hours may complicate work and family life, and may constrain time with children that relates to their health and development. That’s where this research comes in.

Dual potential: opportunities or costs?

When I set out to look at this, it wasn’t easy to imagine a straightforward answer to this question of say whether working evening shifts might be more or less associated with a mum having started to breast feed or how long she breastfed compared with someone who worked weekends. There seemed to be a dual potential for each shift to make it harder or easier depending on how you looked at it.

Evening or night work might make it difficult to schedule consistent breastfeeding patterns. However, at the same time, these shifts might allow for dad or another caregiver to supply pumped milk if a mum is working odd hours.

Using information collected as part of the Millennium Cohort Study, which has followed the lives of children born at the turn of the century, we were able to look at more than 17,000 mothers and their children.

Mums were asked if they had ever tried to breastfeed and, if so, for how long. From this and informed by the UK infant feeding guidelines at the time of the survey, which recommended exclusive breastfeeding for 4–6 months, we were able to create 2 month bands for different breastfeeding duration e.g. ‘intermediate’ (terminated breastfeeding after 2 months but before 4 months).

When their babies were 9 months old, mothers who were working provided information about the sorts of shifts they worked and how often they worked them.

Breastfeeding and work

Nearly 70 per cent of mothers breastfed their child. Thirty percent of them stopped breastfeeding before 2 months and one-third breastfed for at least 4 months. About half of mothers were not working at the time of the survey, nearly 30 per cent were working a standard shift and one in five was working nonstandard shifts.

Looking more closely at nonstandard work, it was possible to see the prevalence of the different types of shifts.

An interesting thing to emerge when we looked just at work patterns and breastfeeding was that women who worked evenings were 70 per cent more likely than women who were unemployed to have breastfed at all. They were also more likely to breastfeed than women who worked other non standard shift patterns i.e. night or weekend shifts.

Women who worked evening shifts were also more likely than their unemployed counterparts to continue breastfeeding across all the different ‘duration bands’ including the longest. They were still also more likely than their peers doing other non standard patterns of work to be breastfeeding i.e. night, weekend and overnight shifts.

Evenings and breastfeeding

So what is it about evening work that appears to be ‘compatible’ with starting and continuing to breast feed (or vice versa?) Perhaps mothers working evening shifts have positive breastfeeding experiences and so keep on breastfeeding and working. Perhaps supportive and flexible working arrangements influence the decision to breastfeed for longer. Evening schedules perhaps have a less disruptive effect on sleep patterns than irregular or night shifts, leaving women feeling more able to manage a job and caring for/breastfeeding their children.

So perhaps evening work schedules have something of a unique role to play in child and maternal health when it comes to helping women back to work without losing the many benefits for them and their children of breastfeeding. There’s a lot more that needs disentangling here, but, nevertheless, food for thought!

Maternal Nonstandard Work Schedules and Breastfeeding Behaviors is research by Afshin Zilanawala and is published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal.

Downshifting and long-term part-time work could be key to a healthy retirement

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.

Retiring early: the links with childhood

When we think of why someone might retire early, our minds are unlikely to make the leap to their childhood for the answer. But a group of researchers interested in what sorts of things affect our later working lives, believe that early retirement may indeed have some of its roots in our younger years. The research sheds new and important light on worldwide efforts to plug pensions gaps and get more people working longer. Hanno Hoven from the University of Dusseldorf outlines why he and colleagues from the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL think early retirement can be traced right back to having had a tougher childhood. He goes on to explain what the findings might mean for policy in this area.

All sorts of things are likely to influence the point at which older people stop working. External factors like tax incentives to stay in work or changes to when we can claim our State Pension play a role. Then there are our working conditions, what’s going on with our health and how our personal circumstances change as we get older.

A substantial body of research has shown in recent years that people whose socioeconomic circumstances are poor are more likely to retire early than their better off peers. But in our research, we wanted to see if retiring early can additionally be traced back to earlier stages of the life course, more specifically, to having had a tougher life as a child or during mid adulthood.

In addition we wanted to dig a bit deeper into older people’s working lives, by giving a clearer and more detailed picture that describes entire patterns of employment trajectories (and not retirement timing only). To do this, we took into account the employment history between 50 and 70, including details on type of job people did, whether they worked full- or part-time or whether they were self-employed.

We used information collected by the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), which has carried out interviews with more than 28,000 older people from 14 different countries. For our research, we focused on 5,857 men and women from the survey who wereaged 70 or over and who had provided details of their previous working and personal lives.

Work and retirement

We created clusters of their work and employment histories, and you can see in the table below the proportion of men and women in each cluster. On this basis we could link these clusters or types of employment histories to earlier adversity for both men and women.

Looking at types of employment histories between the ages of 50 and 70, we could see that men were more likely than women working in full-time employment or self-employed.. Women worked more likely in a part-time job or looked after home or family during those years.

Adversity in childhood

After modelling the effect of early life information and taking a range of background factors into account (e.g., among others, health conditions prior and during working life in mid adulthood), we were able to see that men who had experienced adversity in childhood were 5 percentage points more likely to have retired early (around age 55) from full-time employment, but they were less likely self-employed in late life. The same was true of men who experienced adversity in adulthood, although it is important to note that the effects were independent of each other.

Women who had suffered adversity in childhood were also less likely to be self-employed and retire later on. However, it was not related to early (around age 55) retirement from a full-time job. Women who faced adversity in adult life were more likely to work part-time or to look after the home/family than their peers who suffered no adversity during that period. This was not the case for childhood adversity.

Some other interesting things emerged from the research, which we believe provides a more comprehensive picture than has been provided before.

One very notable point was that early retirement was more closely associated with being in full-time employment rather than being self-employed. This could be because employed people have more restricted opportunities to work for longer (even if they want to) compared with their self-employed counterparts who have more freedom in deciding when to retire.

Food for thought

For those, including the Government’s Business Champion for Older Workers, who want to see thousands more older workers in British companies by 2022, this will be food for thought. More flexible retirement arrangements are likely to be necessary for employed workers who want to work longer, for example, through retirement schemes that allow a reduction of working time before leaving the labour market. This argument is further supported by the fact that such a cluster (where employed people reduced their working hours before retiring) was not found in our research.

Interesting differences emerged between men and women when it came to their employment histories and the way in which childhood adversity was linked to them. Whilst men were more likely to follow a path of full-time employment into retirement, women were more likely to have been continuously looking after home or family (without retirement) or have worked part-time.

When we factored in childhood adversity in the women’s lives, there was a close link with discontinuous employment in later life. This link was stronger for women than for men. Other research has suggested that traditional gender roles make it harder for women to gain a foothold in the labour market, a disadvantage that any adversity in childhood is likely to compound.

Looking across the lifecourse in this way sheds considerable new and important light on the timing of retirement, and offers some pointers for policymakers looking to increase the numbers of older workers. One specific implication is that certain measures are likely to work better for different age groups and should address different stages of the lifecourse.

There has been a great deal of focus on pension age and working conditions for older people. However, our research suggests that our childhood circumstances are also important and that policies to tackle childhood poverty and create good stable jobs for young people may also have a key role to play over time.

Early Adversity and Late Life Employment History—A Sequence Analysis Based on SHARE is research by Hanno Hoven, Nico Dragano, David Blane and Morten Wahrendorf and is published in Work, Aging and Retirement.

 

Frailty: what is the connection with our working lives?

People are living longer, and the number of over-65s is expected to reach around one in four of the UK population by 2050. But is retirement a golden age, or will we be dogged by poor health? Wentian Lu from University College London and colleagues investigated how our working pattern throughout our lives affects our health after we retire, and found interesting differences between men and women.

Government policies are focused on extending our working lives, and record numbers of people are now working beyond state pension age. But what effect is it having on our health?

The UK government’s former older workers champion, and pensions expert, Dr Ros Altmann argues that raising the state pension age is a blunt instrument for managing old-age support, which could compound existing social and health inequalities.

With people being expected to work for longer, it is critical to understand whether and how people’s working lives affect their later life health.

A recent study led by colleague Dr Giorgio Di Gessa found no significant health benefits from working beyond state pension age, once social background, previous health and employment histories were taken into account.

Our investigation was the first in England to focus on the impact of earlier working patterns on health in later life.

We used information on more than 1,600 men and nearly 2,800 women from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Health-related information on a range of things such as chronic conditions, pain, depression, heart disease, falls, fractures and joint replacement was used to develop a frailty index.

Using detailed work histories between the ages of 16 and 64 for men (16 and 59 for women), they were divided into groups which ranged from ‘full-time employment throughout’ to ‘unemployed throughout’. For men, we considered those who left work early, at either 60 or 49 years, and those who started work late (e.g because they went to University or spent time gaining other qualifications) and retired at 60.

For women’s employment histories, we also took account of part-time working, long and short career breaks, family care, and those who only had occasional work and retired early.

Frailty over time

The study confirmed that frailty increased with age, accelerating after 65 for women and 70 for men.

The findings showed that women who took a short break for family care and then worked part-time until they were 59 had better health at retirement age than those who were mostly in full-time work. Experiencing long career breaks or only working occasionally also appeared to be more detrimental for women’s health. This finding supports the importance of work-life balance for women’s health in later life.

Women who returned to work part-time after a short career break were healthier than those who went from family care to full-time work. If further studies confirm this result, it would indicate that working part-time while their children are young can have long-term positive benefits for women’s health. The key to maintaining the long-term health of today’s generation of working mothers will be to promote flexible working policies, such as flexible start and finish times, allowing women to balance work and childcare.

Consistent with previous studies, our investigation found that women who have never worked tend to have poorer health than those who worked full-time until the age of 60. What was more surprising was that women who never worked experienced a slower decline in their health beyond the age of 60, even when social background and health-affecting behaviours such as smoking and drinking were taken into account.

Early retirement

Men who retired early at either 49 or 60 had poorer health than those who worked until they were 65. However, leaving paid employment before the age of 65 slowed down the progress of poor health in later life.

This supports the findings of previous studies which show that the burden of ill-health is substantially relieved by early retirement. With Government policies encouraging older people to work longer, our research lends further weight to concerns that this may not be good for those already suffering poor health.

Another unexpected finding was that men who started working later in life and retired at around 60, who tended to be those more highly educated and with greater social advantage, actually experienced more rapid declines in health after the age of 65 than those who worked full-time from an earlier age and retired early. This was a small group, so further research is needed to explore this in more depth.

Despite limitations imposed by some of our employment history groups being quite small, as well as possible biases coming from participants’ subjective reporting of health issues, our findings offer important pointers for developing effective strategies to improve health for older people in the UK.

If, as Dr Altmann suggests, the government could replace the blunt instrument of raising state pension age with more finely-tuned policies, allowing those who can and want to extend their working lives to do so in a flexible way, this would be fairer and give the most vulnerable a better chance of enjoying a healthy retirement.

Further information

Relationship between employment histories and frailty trajectories in later life: evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing is research by Wentian Lu, Rebecca Benson and Amanda Sacker of University College London, Karen Glaser and Laurie Corna of King’s College London, Loretta Platts of Stockholm University, Diana Worts and Peggy McDonough of the University of Toronto, Giorgio Di Gessa from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Debora Price of the University of Manchester. It is published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

 

Work and family conflict: who is at risk?

Juggling the demands of work and family can create conflict and this can play out differently for men and women. But what other factors are at play? Do things like the sort of job we do and the levels of control we feel we have at work and at home matter too? It’s a subject of keen interest not just to individuals, but also employers and Government, who are being urged to provide more and better support for working parents. Dr Helena Falkenberg from Stockholm University and a team of colleagues have been investigating and find that these other factors do indeed matter, especially for women in senior level jobs.

Being in a job we enjoy and having a family are sources of great satisfaction, but also of conflicting demands. From organising childcare and sharing the housework to getting that all important report done on time and preparing for a big presentation, being a working parent can be tough at times.

Maybe there’s a special breakfast meeting that means mum or dad can’t take the kids to school or perhaps one of the children is suddenly unwell and decisions need to be taken around which parent will take time off. Work gets in the way of family life and family matters can prevent us getting on with our work.

A recent report from the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD) called for a step change in support for working parents from UK Government and employers, claiming initiatives such as Shared Parental Leave and free childcare policies are not hitting the mark, despite being well intentioned.

In this research, rather than looking simply at how and to what extent men and women are conflicted over work and family, we try to pinpoint more clearly other aspects of our lives that might be linked with conflict. In that we way, we can identify more clearly the sorts of individuals at greatest risk which in turn might help employers and policymakers identify and target support at specific groups.

This study investigated the links between gender and socioeconomic status (specifically in this case the type of job people did) and levels of conflict. It also examined how levels of control at home and work increased or reduced conflict.

The findings suggest that if you are a woman or have a higher level job, you are most likely to experience conflict between work and family life. In addition, the less in control you feel at work and at home, the greater that conflict is for both men and women.

Our study highlights the need to make it easier for higher status employees to combine work and family, especially women, and to increase the levels of control at work and at home to help individuals manage work and family successfully.

Civil servant data

We used information from the Whitehall II study of nearly 3,500 British civil servants (2,657 men and 827 women) in the 1990s. They were grouped into three different socioeconomic status levels

  • Senior administrative
  • Executive/professional
  • Clerical/support

Participants in the study were asked whether and to what extent their work interfered with family life. For example did work commitments reduce the amount of time they could spend with the family. Did their job involve a lot of travel away from home and did it make them irritable at home or leave them lacking the energy needed to do home and family related things.

When it came to how family got in the way of work, they were asked if family matters distracted them from getting on with work, prevent them from getting enough sleep to be do their job well and having enough time to themselves.

To dig deeper into the question of how in control they felt at work and at home, they were asked a range of questions including much say they had in decisions at work, how much choice about what they did and how much flexibility there was. For control at home they were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “At home, I feel I have control over what happens in most situations.”

When we took into account factors such as part-time work, whether the individuals were married, had children or other caring responsibilities, women reported more conflict between work and family than men. When we added in to the analysis how much control over work and home life participants felt they had, the difference between men and women was even more pronounced.

Having a more senior position was also a key factor for both sexes, but especially for women. The small number of women at high grades in the civil service and other areas of the labour market appears, to some extent, to reflect the difficulties for women in high positions to combine work and family. Notably in our study sample, more than half of the women with senior level jobs did not have children.

When it came to how family interfered with work, once again women fared worse than men, with women having more than twice the risk of their family life interfering with their work life. Of the women, those in higher positions fared worst of all. The type of job the men did in the study did not make a difference to the levels of interference.

Being in control

Participants who reported low levels of control at work were most likely to say that work interfered with family life, indicating that more control and flexibility at work eases the transition between work and family. There was less of a link between low levels of control at work and those reporting family interference with work. However the interaction between control at work and the influences of socioeconomic status and gender needs further research to draw significant conclusions.

Low levels of control at home also contributed to a markedly higher risk of work-family and family-work conflict. This seemed to be equally important for women and men no matter what their position at work. To develop effective policies on work-family balance, the home sphere will need further research.

One limitation of our study is that it was conducted among white-collar British civil servants, and the findings may differ among other working populations and, particularly, in different countries with different social security systems. Information was also collected some years ago.

However, we found clear evidence that women experienced more interference between work and family and vice versa than men, especially women in senior positions. This is important as it might influence their career choices and their health over time.

We hope this research and further work in this area will help employers and Government to get a more nuanced picture of what factors are at play when it comes to the issues facing working parents, and ultimately develop initiatives and approaches that can reduce the conflict in a way that helps them to thrive at work and at home.

Further information

Do gender and socioeconomic status matter when combining work and family: Could control at work and at home help? Results from the Whitehall II study is research by Helena Falkenberg and Petra Lindfors of Stockholm University, Tarani Chandola of the University of Manchester and the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, and Jenny Head of University College London. It is published in the journal Economic and Industrial Democracy.

Out of work again? The psychological impacts of repeated unemployment

Being unemployed is bad for our mental well-being, but if we lose our job more than once does the psychological blow lessen in some way? Researchers Cara Booker from the University of Essex and Amanda Sacker at the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL used the long-running British Household Panel Survey to examine the psychological well-being of people who have repeatedly lost their jobs. Their findings show that our employment history makes a difference and could have implications for welfare to work initiatives from Governments looking to get people back to work.

Continuous employment may be what is best for us, but of course life is not always that straightforward and, at any given time, a significant proportion of the population will be out of work. This could be because we choose to take time out to undertake training or to have a family. We may fall ill or be made redundant.

The world of work is also becoming more flexible. Fewer people are staying with the same firm for long periods of time and more people are moving from contract to contract or job to job, sometimes with spells of unemployment in between.

At the same time, the Government wants to get more people off benefits and into work and is looking to make its Work Programme more effective.

Using 17 years of data collected from the participants in the British Household Panel Survey (1991-2008), we looked at any individual who had reported at least one spell of unemployment. Of these 1,642 participants, 82 per cent were unemployed once, 15 per cent twice and 3 per cent three or more times.

Mental health score

Participants were asked a range of questions about their mental health and answers to these were used to allot a score with 0-11 indicating good psychological health and 12 or more indicating stress or anxiety that could lead to ill health. The time periods before and after a spell of unemployment were also taken into account because job loss isn’t generally something that happens suddenly and there can be weeks or months building up to it.

Looking at the group as a whole, we found their psychological well-being was generally poorer during all spells of unemployment compared with when they were not unemployed, but there was no evidence of a lowering or increasing of the effect from one spell of unemployment to the next.

When we dug deeper into participants’ prior work history, however, we saw some differences between those people who had previously been ‘economically inactive’ (voluntarily not working e.g. to look after family or study) and those who had been working.

Those who prior to being employed had been ‘voluntarily’ not working suffered poorer psychological well-being after they went on to lose their job but became notably worse in the third spell of unemployment.

The previously employed group’s psychological well-being also took a knock after losing a job once and then again, but, by the third time there was no change, a possible indication that the individual is somehow adapting or getting used to dealing with the ‘shock’ of becoming unemployed.

When we compared levels of psychological well-being between these two groups, they were notably lower among the previously employed at unemployment spells one and two, but this was reversed at spell three.

Employment history matters

So only when we took into consideration being economically inactive as opposed to employed, did a slightly clearer picture emerge around this question of whether people adapt to the ‘shock’ of unemployment, with those previously employed seeming to adapt and those previously economically inactive becoming increasingly sensitive to it. These findings were given further weight when we looked at retrospective employment histories before the BHPS began.

One explanation for this is that those who come from an employed background tend to find work again after each unemployment spell they experience, so they become less anxious about finding another job. The economically inactive, meanwhile, seem to find it harder to enter and re-enter the job market which could account for increased anxiety with more attempts to sign up as ‘unemployed and seeking work’.

Household income also played a role with those who were economically inactive on higher than average incomes experiencing worse psychological well-being than their less off counterparts when making an unsuccessful attempt to enter employment.

In its recent Welfare-to-Work report, the Work and Pensions Committee pointed out that key to the programme’s success was providing unemployed people with “the right help at the right time” and a better understanding of the barriers and characteristics that prevent a swift return to work. A better understanding of the impacts of repeated spells of unemployment on people’s well-being would seem to resonate here.

It is also clear that good quality, secure employment opportunities with long term prospects are key to people’s health and happiness.

Psychological well-being and reactions to multiple unemployment events: adaptation or sensitisation? is research by Cara Booker and Amanda Sacker and is publishes in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health

Photo credit: Kathryn Decker