Working Erodes Health For Many Seniors

Maybe your uncle had a heart attack as soon as he retired. Or your newly-retired friends feel depressed and lost without structure to their day. A cheerful article in Harvard Health News arguing that working longer provides mental stimulation and staves off chronic disease may have led you to believe that retirement killed your uncle or is making your friends bored.

But the health effects of retirement and working longer are complicated. On balance, voluntary retirement is mostly associated with greater health, control, and well-being. When older people are pushed in to retirement, though, the health effects are negative and over 50% of retirees are forced out involuntarily. For many people over 55 and 65, conditions of work and unemployment are harsh and can hasten death and morbidity.

A 2008 study comparing two groups — retired and working people – found retirees had more difficulties with mobility and daily activities, more illness, and more erosion of mental health than workers of the same age. Not knowing why people in the study had retired might make you think that being retired is what makes you depressed and unhealthy, when bad health and an unfriendly labor market might be why they retired to begin with. People in higher socioeconomic classes work longer and are in better health. But the work did not necessary make them healthier. They might be even happier if they stopped working.

People who retire from jobs with low reward-to-effort ratios keep their health better than people who work longer. A 2013 study and a followup in 2018 found retiring from jobs with heavy physical and psychologically demanding responsibilities improves health and reduces depressive symptoms. Retirement boosts health significantly because retirees are more likely to stop smoking and exercise more. It seems habits are harder to break while working. By 2018 compelling evidence emerged that retirement — compared to working — improves physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction, and eventually, retirement reduces functional limitations for many people. Life satisfaction improves within the first four years of retirement, while health improvements show up four or more years later.

“Escaping” work by retiring is the healthiest thing a person could do.

Unfriendly Labor Markets

Since the labor market is quite unfriendly to older workers – it takes longer to find a job if you lose yours; pay atrophies; and many working conditions get worse – staying in the labor pool can get toxic. And if you suffer job insecurity and involuntary job loss in midlife but keep working, your health gets worse. Men, especially, who have unstable working careers and involuntary job loss are at greater risk of depression in old age if they keep working.

A study published in the aptly named Journal of Happiness Studies found people who retired had more years feeling good than their counterparts who were working.

One final health indicator — that is often studied and much admired — is resilience, the ability to “go with the flow” or “flourish despite adversity.” It turns out work in old age does not help an older person be resilient. Resilient elderly people have good-quality relationships and are integrated into the community; but work in and of itself is not connected to those good social and psychological outcomes in old age.

Work and Older Women

Work in old age could be worse for women because they are more likely to be monitored at work, face more age discrimination, and are likely to be paid less for the same effort, responsibility, and education. Older women workers are more likely to have jobs with low reward for effort ratios. Working longer for women, especially, erodes health. Women in service jobs would become healthier if they retired.

Retirement is especially helpful for people who have the worst jobs, are in worse health, and have the lowest status in society and the labor market. An extra positive effect of retirement for people with lower socioeconomic status is that retiring reduces pain which gives a person more capacity to engage in daily activities of living. This finding is key because pain is a big part of an older worker’s life.

Jobs Aren’t Getting Easier For Older Workers

The physical demands placed on older workers today are no different from what they were in the 1990s. In 1992, 17 percent of older workers said their jobs required lifting heavy loads. That rate remained high at 15 percent in 2014. Older Black men were more likely to do physical labor in 2010 than they were in the 1990s. Moreover, the share of workers reporting frequent stooping, kneeling, and crouching in 2014 was equal to that in 1992, at 27 percent. One in three older workers said their job required “lots of physical effort” in 2014. And computers have not saved people from toil on the job; more older people have jobs demanding keen eyesight and intense concentration due to computers.

By 2035 personal and home health-care aides are occupations that will see the most job growth. Government data projects that three-fourths of these new jobs will go to women over age 55. All signs point to the largest source of jobs for older workers being important jobs for society that require high levels of physical, mental, and emotional effort for low levels of monetary reward.

If Nothing Is Done

With these low reward to effort ratios I suspect that unless something is done by Congress and businesses, older people working longer could make people sicker, reverse previous gains in longevity, and worsen the class and race gaps in longevity.

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