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.
A 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.
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.
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.