Tag Archives: Inequality

Let’s be fair! The importance of a balanced approach as we extend working lives

Extending people’s working lives has become a well-established policy in many parts of Europe as governments seek to reduce state pension costs in the context of growing ageing populations. But there are concerns about the health of older workers and what poor health among workers might mean for sickness absence rates and social security costs. New research looking at working longer and sickness absence rates suggests that it might be possible to raise the retirement age without increasing sickness absence rates and social security costs unduly, but the researchers also raise concerns about widening health and social inequalities. Authors of the research Kristin Farrants and Kristina Alexanderson from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and Jenny Head at University College London outline their findings.

It is generally thought that more people remaining in paid work will put less strain on public pension systems, since there will be more people paying into the system, and fewer people drawing on it, even if some people withdraw their old age pension at the same time as they have paid work.

The flip side of this thinking is that there could be a large group of people, especially those on low incomes and with lower levels of education, who may simply not be healthy enough to justify those increases in retirement age. In other words, increasing the pension age could lead to higher costs for the sickness absence insurance system.

In our research, the first to look at the links between being in paid work and sickness absence after the age of 65, we used Swedish data to look at a 12-year period of the lives of 218,000 workers who turned 65 in 2000, 2005, or 2010.

In line with policies to encourage people to work longer, we could see that the proportion of each of our cohorts in paid work after 65 did indeed increase over time. In fact, between the 2000 and 2010 cohorts, the number of people in paid work aged above 65 doubled from around 50 to 100 thousand. However, in the studied years there were no changes introduced regarding change of pension years. Age 65 was the prevalent age for old-age pension, which could be taken at 61.

Sickness absence

When we looked at sickness absence, the proportion of workers aged 66 – 71 years with a sickness absence spell lasting for more than 14 days increased only marginally between the 2000 and 2010 cohorts. This indicates that there is a health potential, a justification for further increases in state pension ages and reassurance for those worried about the social and economic knock-ons of extending working lives.

However, closer scrutiny of the data threw up some concerns around who was most likely to work after age 65 and the implications of that – in other words would some people from certain backgrounds benefit more than others from the ability to work longer and remain healthy thus reinforcing inequalities?

Being a man, having high education, being born in Sweden, living in a large city, and having no prior sickness absence or (especially) part-time disability pension was associated with being in paid work after age 65.

Among those in paid work after age 65, being born in the “Nordic countries outside Sweden” for women, and in “EU-27 outside the Nordic countries” or in “the rest of the world” for men, and living in a large city, having prior sickness absence, and no prior disability pension was associated with having sickness absence.

Actually, several of those with previous sickness absence and/or part-time disability pension also continued in paid work. Those, as well as others, of course had complaints that sometimes led to work incapacity and need of sickness absence – however, to a much lower degree than when aged 60-64.

Possible reasons for their lower sickness absence, especially in relation to the massive increase in proportions of people in paid work, warrants further investigations. The general better health of older people might be one of those aspects, however, work adjustments regarding work hours, work times, work tasks might be others.

Policy makers need to consider how they can best support people with different health conditions to remain in paid work after the age of 65 if health and income inequalities are not to become entrenched and wider as state pension ages rise further in the future. Fairness and balance are key!

Trends in Associations Between Sickness Absence Before the Age of 65 and Being in Paid Work After the Age of 65: Prospective Study of Three Total Population Cohorts is research by Kristin Farrants, Jenny Head and Kristina Alexanderson and is published in the Journal of Aging and Social Policy.

Leaving school: how do work and family transitions affect women’s wealth and wellbeing later on?

How have the early adult lives of a generation of young women who grew up after the war impacted on their lives now? Baowen Xue and Anne McMunn from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL discuss two new papers which look at life satisfaction, mental health and economic wealth among older women. Their findings suggest early marriage and domestic labour are linked to worse outcomes later in life. 

The move out of education into work, marriage and parenthood is a sensitive time for young people and can set the course for their later lives. So which circumstances have turned out to be beneficial, and which have been less so?

We used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, ELSA, to look for answers to these questions. Our study followed a sample of over-50s who have been interviewed every two years since 2002. A Life history interview was conducted additionally to collect information about their  education, work and family lives.

We identified a group of almost 4,000 women born before 1956 who answered questions on life satisfaction and mental health, and in our second paper a smaller group of just under 1800 for whom income data was also available.

Our hypothesis as we set out on the research was that those who married and had children later, and who therefore tended to have stronger ties to work early on, would have better mental health in later life. This largely proved to be true, though remaining single was not the answer: this group tended to suffer from isolation and loneliness later in life.

We identified six types of transition from education into work and family life: Early marriage and domestic labour, later marriage and domestic labour, later marriage and later work entry, later marriage and early work entry, early work entry and remaining single, and a group whose experiences were mixed and included lone parenthood, marriage with or without children and a mixture of employment types.

Early motherhood and domestic labour

The key finding in our study was that women who took on motherhood and domestic labour at an early stage were more likely to suffer from depression and lower life satisfaction in later life than those who went to work early and married late. Those with mixed histories and those who stayed single and childless were also more vulnerable to poor mental health and low life satisfaction. But those who started work late – often through staying in education – and also married late had the highest life satisfaction and the lowest level of mental illness.

We found that these effects could by and large be linked to socioeconomic status: those from more privileged backgrounds tended to gain higher educational qualifications, to enter work later and to marry later, and that set them on a path to a better quality of life later on. Conversely, those from less privileged backgrounds tended to gain fewer qualifications, to marry earlier and to have a poorer quality of life later.

A second paper, also using ELSA data asked a linked question: how does leaving full-time education and becoming a home-maker at an early stage affect women’s economic wealth later in life?

We took the life histories of just under 1800 women born between 1939 and 1952, and looked at when they left education as well as how their entry into work affected their financial situation in later life. 

We found those who left education early and went straight into domestic roles were four times less likely than their more educated peers to be in the highest household wealth bracket in later life.

Women who started work between the ages of 21 and 24 were 40 per cent more likely to be in professional or managerial jobs than those who left school by age 16 and started work early. They were 53 per cent more likely to be in the top earnings bracket for women of their age and were almost four times more likely to be in the top bracket for total household wealth.

We concluded that the age at which women leave education plays a pivotal role in their later economic, personal and mental wellbeing. For the generation of women who are now pensioners, an early entry into domestic rather than paid labour cast a long shadow, while higher education conferred particular advantages. 

As higher education and later partnership have become the norm for today’s young women, these studies will form a baseline which will one day enable us to see whether their experiences compare or contrast with those of their grandmothers’ generation.

The Long Shadow of Youth: Girls’ Transition From Full-Time Education and Later-Life Subjective Well-Being in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing is research by Baowen Xue, Penny Tinkler and Anne McMunn and is published in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences

Girls’ transition to adulthood and their later life socio-economic attainment: Findings from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing is research by BaoWen Xue, Penny Tinkler, Paola Zaninotto and Anne Mc Munn and is published in Advances in Life Course Research.

Anne McMunn and BaoWen Xue are based at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health at UCL. Paola Zaninotto works with the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing at UCL and Penny Tinkler is based at the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing.