The impact of retirement and working longer on older adults is a complex issue. While some argue that working longer provides mental stimulation and wards off chronic diseases, it is vital to consider the overall effects. Voluntary retirement is generally associated with greater health, control, and well-being. However, when older individuals are forced into retirement, the health effects can be damaging. Unfortunately, over 50% of retirees are pushed out involuntarily.
Working conditions and unemployment can be harsh for many individuals over the age of 55 and even more so if you are over 65, potentially hastening death and increasing morbidity. A study conducted in 2008 compared two groups – retired and working individuals – and found that retirees experienced more difficulties with mobility and daily activities, more illness, and greater erosion of mental health compared to workers of the same age.
It is important to note that the study did not investigate why people retired, and it is possible that pre-existing bad health and an unfriendly labor market influenced their decision to retire. People in higher socioeconomic classes tend to work longer and have better health, but the work itself may not necessarily contribute to their well-being. They might experience even greater happiness if they stop working.
Furthermore, individuals who retire from jobs with low reward-to-effort ratios tend to maintain better health compared to those who work longer. Studies conducted in 2013 and 2018 found that retiring from physically and psychologically demanding jobs improved health and reduced depressive symptoms. Retirement significantly enhances health because retirees are more likely to quit smoking and exercise regularly. It appears that certain habits are harder to break while working.
By 2018, compelling evidence had emerged indicating that retirement improves physical health, mental well-being, and life satisfaction, reducing functional limitations for many individuals. Life satisfaction tends to improve within the first four years of retirement, while health improvements often become apparent four or more years later.
Retirement can be viewed as a beneficial means of “escaping” work and promoting good health. Given that the labor market is often unfriendly to older workers, with prolonged job searches, declining pay, and worsening working conditions, remaining in the workforce can have toxic effects. Moreover, if individuals experience job insecurity and involuntary job loss in midlife but continue working, their health can deteriorate. Older men, in particular, who have unstable working careers and experience involuntary job loss are at a higher risk of depression in old age if they persist in working.
According to a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, retirees have more years of feeling good compared to those who continue working. Resilience, the capacity to thrive despite challenges, is a crucial aspect of overall health that is frequently examined and praised. It turns out that work in old age does not contribute to an older person’s resilience. Resilient elderly individuals tend to have high-quality relationships and strong community integration. Still, work does not appear to be directly linked to these positive social and psychological outcomes in old age.
Work in old age could be particularly detrimental to women, as they are more likely to face workplace monitoring and age discrimination and receive lower pay for equal effort, responsibility, and education. Older women workers are more likely to have jobs with low reward-to-effort ratios. Working longer can erode women’s health, especially those in service-oriented jobs who may experience improved well-being upon retirement.
Retirement is particularly beneficial for individuals with low-paying, physically demanding jobs, poorer health, and lower social status in society and the labor market. Another positive effect of retirement for people with lower socioeconomic status is reducing pain, which increases engagement in daily activities. This finding is significant, considering that pain is often a significant aspect of an older worker’s life.
Acknowledging that jobs are not becoming easier for older workers is crucial. The physical demands placed on older individuals today are similar to those in the 1990s. The prevalence of older workers reporting heavy lifting, frequent stooping, kneeling, crouching, and jobs requiring significant physical effort remains high. The introduction of computers has not alleviated the physical toll of specific jobs, as more older individuals find themselves in occupations that demand keen eyesight and intense concentration due to computer usage.
The job growth projections indicate that by 2035, personal and home healthcare aides will be the occupations experiencing the most significant expansion. Government data suggests that three-fourths of these new jobs will be filled by women over 55. This indicates that the most significant employment opportunities for older workers will lie in important roles that require high levels of physical, mental, and emotional effort but offer low levels of monetary reward.
If no action is taken by Congress and businesses to address the low reward-to-effort ratios in many jobs, the prospect of older individuals working longer could lead to deteriorating health, the reversal of previous gains in longevity, and an exacerbation of class and race disparities in life expectancy.