What are the influences on our employment prospects across our working lives? Could where we live when we’re young be important when we’re older – regardless of our social class or level of education? A new study by Emily Murray and colleagues from UCL, King’s College, London and Queen Mary, University of London, finds if we live in an area of high unemployment when we’re young, we’re more likely to leave the labour market at a younger age.
Which factors can help improve our prospects of employment – and of good health – in mid-life? One reason the question is important is that if we can stay healthy longer and work longer, we are less dependent on the state. And the cost of our ageing society is a major issue for governments and individuals across the developed world.
In the UK the state pension age will be raised to age 67 by 2028, but in fact most employees leave work well before they reach that stage. For some that’s a positive thing, but for others it’s forced upon them by unemployment or poor health – and that contributes to social inequality among older people.
Who is at risk? We know older workers in areas of high unemployment are more likely to be on disability benefits. And older people are more likely to leave work for non-health reasons, too – if they are made redundant, they find it harder than their younger colleagues to find another job.
But until now we didn’t know much about how unemployment and other factors experienced by the young might affect their prospects of being in work as they approach the state retirement age.
There are good reasons to suspect there might be an effect –research has shown that periods of unemployment in young adulthood can have a ‘scarring’ effect – so it stands to reason that early work experiences could set some people on good trajectories and others on less positive ones.
Higher-level job opportunities aren’t evenly distributed, and so we might speculate, for example, that workers in the north – where access to careers in finance, for instance, would be poorer than in the south – would be less likely to start out on one of those ‘good’ pathways.
And education might make a difference, too. We know those growing up in poorer areas are likely to end up with fewer qualifications, and therefore to be disadvantaged in the jobs market. That, too, could continue to affect them throughout their lives.
So health, employment status, occupational class and education might all influence the length of our working lives and lead to unequal retirement outcomes.
Survey of health and development
We used the Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD), a sample of all births in one week in March 1946 across England, Scotland, and Wales, to test our theories.
This group of people have been questioned 24 times throughout their lives, most recently in 2014 when they were aged 68. We used data from when they were aged four, 26, 53, 60-64 and 68 – a total sample of 2526 people, all of whom had given information on their retirement age or were still in work at age 68 years.
We found there was a correlation between increased unemployment rates in the area a person lived in mid-life and the likelihood of an individual retiring earlier. However, this relationship was explained by where people lived earlier in life.
For example, cohort members who lived in an area with higher unemployment when they were 26 were more likely to be outside the labour market at age 53. Compared to those who worked full-time, those who were unemployed at aged 53 retired on average 4.7 years earlier.
Similarly, mid-life health problems were more common among those who had lived in areas with high unemployment at age 26, even when taking account of age 26 health status.
We did not find a direct link between educational achievement by age 26 and retirement age. We did, however, find indirect links: for example, those who did not obtain any educational qualifications by age 26 were more likely to live in areas of high unemployment than those who gained degrees. There was no association between area unemployment at age 4 and educational achievement at age 26.
Adulthood is key
Our findings show for the first time that early adulthood is a key life stage at which local labour market conditions can affect our eventual retirement age. We found this happened through two interlinked factors – high area unemployment and worse health status at age 26.
So, there are clear messages for governments: strategies to extend the working lives of future generations will be most effective if they address youth unemployment rather than focusing on older workers in areas with high unemployment.
Policies to extend working life should focus not just on individuals but also on the wider labour market context in which those individuals reside. Maintaining employment and good health in mid-life are key to ensuring that individuals can work longer. And large-scale interventions that create new jobs in areas with high youth unemployment could bring long-term positive consequences for future generations’ extended working lives.
Linking local labour market conditions across the life course to retirement age: Pathways of health, employment status, occupational class and educational achievement, using 60 years of the 1946 British Birth Cohort, is published in Social Science & Medicine.
Emily T. Murray, Paola Zaninotto, Maria Fleischmann, Nicola Shelton and Jenny Head are based at the University College London Department of Epidemiology and Public Health.
Mai Stafford and Diana Kuh were based at the Medical Research Council Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at University College London when this paper was written.
Ewan Carr is also based at the Department of Biostatistics and Health Informatics, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London
Stephen Stansfield is based at the Queen Mary University of London, Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Centre for Psychiatry.