Tag Archives: ONS Longitudinal Study

Can ‘nudge’ theory help extend working lives?

Government policy in the UK and other industrialised countries aims to increase the numbers of people staying on in work for longer – but there are significant differences between different groups. Can social and economic factors explain them? Or is there truth in the suggestion that some groups of workers are ‘resistant’ to staying in work, particularly in poorer areas? Nicola Shelton and colleagues from UCL looked at regional differencesin extending working lives and found policymakers may need to rethink their approach.

Despite the government’s stated desire for longer working lives, many workers still stop working before state pension age. The proportion of 60 year-olds in work in England and Wales is 20 per cent lower than the proportion of 50 year-olds, according to 2011 census data. 

And this drop in work participation rates isn’t uniform: Existing research tells us those with lower educational qualifications – particularly women –are more likely than others to leave work early.

So, why might that be?  Some official publicationshave suggested there may be resistance to continuing in work among some groups– perhaps in areas where there are fewer professional or skilled jobs, and where levels of deprivation and unemployment are high.

We wanted to find out more about this:  what regional differences are there in the age at which people leave work? Are there gender differences? Are there particular factors – working conditions, household or individual factors – which can promote extended working lives? And if there are, how do they affect any regional variations?  

There is some previous research on the subject. 

studyusing the ONS Longitudinal Study(ONS‐LS) and the English Longitudinal Study of Ageingfound those in lower-grade jobs, those previously unemployed, those with health problems and those with no dependent children tended to  stay longer in work, along with women from Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds and single women. The study included just two areas, comparing the South, East and Midlands with the North of England and Wales.  

Similar evidence exists from other countries – In FranceNorwayand Great Britain, links have been found between unemployment and deprivation and retirement rates.

Census data

We used census data – a one per cent sample of the total population – to look at what happened to adults who were aged between 40 and 49 in 2001.  This ONS‐LS data covers more than 33,000 women and just under 32,000 men who were therefore aged 50-59 in 2011. 

We found men in the North East were significantly less likely to extend their working lives than others. Those in the South West and South East were 1.6 times more likely to stay on than those in the North East, in the East of England 1.5 times, and in the East Midlands 1.4 times. 

Women in all regions apart from London and Wales were significantly more likely to stay in work than those in the North East, with figures ranging from 1.15 times in the North West and West Midlands to 1.6 times in the South West.

But when we did further analysis, we found that for men at least, other social factors could explain these differences. Put bluntly, the reason men in the North East leave work earlier is because they tend to have fewer qualifications and less favourable employment status – both of which are associated with shortened working lives.

When we did the same analysis for women, we found some additional factors which affected their likelihood of staying on in work. Those in lower-skilled jobs were less likely still to be in work by 2011, along with those working for larger employers. Those who worked away from home were also more likely to have left, along with those who worked long hours. 

And again, – when we considered these factors along with prior employment, health, social status and caring responsibilities, and only those in the South West were significantly more likely to stay on than those in the North East. 

Working conditions

So, what can governments do? Given a good work environment, choosing to remain in work may have positive benefits such as maintaining good health and functioning and providing a sense of purpose- so working conditions are important.

The biggest single factor in determining whether workers stay on for longer is prior employment – and that is not likely to be changed by behavioural approaches such as the ‘nudge’ theory of behavioural economics which is popular with policy makers.

Policies that do not address issues such as low levels of education and high levels of unskilled employment can only be partially successful in enabling people to work for longer. Indeed, some groups who may have the most financial need to remain in work are most likely to leave earlier. This is particularly an issue for women.

Policies that increase skills and education in later life, rather than simply targeting those ‘receptive’ to extended working, will be more likely to make a difference.

Gender differences and individual, household, and workplace characteristics: Regional geographies of extended working lives, is research by Nicola Shelton, Jenny Head, Ewan Carr and Paola Zaninotto, and is published in Population Space and Place. 

Are permanently sick people less sick nowadays?

Brexit aside, there have few topics more hotly contested in recently years than who should get incapacity benefits. The steady rise in the incapacity benefits bill over several decades led some to question whether greater numbers of people could actually be sick and whether this group is actually healthier, with less serious health problems, than had been the case in decades past. But what does research evidence tell us? Bola Akinwale from Public Health England and colleagues at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies have looked at 30 years’ worth of data to see.

In the last 30 years of the 20th century, life expectancy for those aged 65 increased more than it had in the previous 70 years. A job market that had been almost completely dominated by men became dramatically more diverse. By the turn of the century, very few men aged 60-64 were in paid work, although that number has since increased.

On the face of it, many of these changes represent good news, but they have also created new challenges around funding pensions and how to keep increasing numbers of older people healthy and active for longer.

Our research looked at the proportions of men and women around State Pension Age who were employed, unemployed, permanently sick (those we might expect to claim incapacity benefits) or retired. We went on to look at their health immediately after retirement age to see if they had died prematurely or had a limiting long-term illness or disability.

When we compared the labour market positions of 60-64 year-old men in 1971 compared with 2001, we saw some big changes:

  • Working – 78.4 percent v 47.5 percent
  • Retired – 7.2 percent v 24.7 percent
  • Permanently sick – 9 percent v 19.7 percent

By 2001, women were almost as likely as men to describe themselves as retired after State Pension Age and 12.4 percent of 55-59 year-old women described themselves as permanently sick in 2001 compared with 3.4 percent back in 1971.

So we see the proportions of permanently sick men doubling over 30 years and quadrupling for women.

Across the same time frame, the risk of dying just before State Pension Age decreased substantially – by more than 60 percent for men and by more than 50 percent for women, irrespective of whether they are in work or permanently sick. In other words, both groups benefited equally from these changes – staying healthier and living longer than their counterparts 30 years previously.

Are sick people less sick nowadays?

 The answer is no and yes – it depends on the comparator.

To try to get to the bottom of this idea that people who are permanently sick are less sick than their historical predecessors, we compared the likelihood of them dying prematurely with that of their working peers.

On the one hand, if they were less sick, we would expect to see the gap between the chances of dying prematurely for these two groups get smaller over the 30-year period. We don’t see that.

Permanently sick men aged 65-69 were three times more likely to die prematurely than their working peers in 2001 and this was an increase on the 1971 figure. For women, the figure was between four and five times over the period we looked at.

On the other hand, it’s clear that this 30 year period brought about some remarkable changes in the working lives and general health of older people, including among permanently sick group. Their life expectancy has increased in line with other people of their age.

But despite these improvements in life expectancy among permanently sick people, compared with employed people their likelihood of dying has, if anything, slightly increased and certainly not decreased.

So, taken together, our research does not support the argument that the permanently sick have less serious health conditions nowadays than they used to.

A key plank of the Government’s policies for people who are unable to work due to illness is to try to support them back to work wherever possible. Our research shows that achieving this aim, requires careful consideration of the types of jobs and working environments that might be suitable for people with chronic illnesses.

If we don’t create enough jobs that older people with chronic illness can sustain and thrive in, life expectancy gaps between those in work and those who leave the workforce prematurely due to ill-health may widen further.

Work, permanent sickness and mortality risk: a prospective cohort study of England and Wales, 1971-2006 is research by Bola Akinwale, Kevin Lynch, Richard Wiggins, Seeromanie Harding, Mel Bartley and David Blane. It made use of linked census and death records in the ONS Longitudinal Study.

Photo credit: ILO in Asia and the Pacific