Work longer, live healthier? The health implications of retirement

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Emma

by Emma Birchall, Head of Research, Future of Work

When to retire? It’s a life-changing question most of us will face and, while we may be able to calculate the financial implications, it seems we could be making this decision with astoundingly little data on what retirement means for our health. A clearer understanding of the health implications of retiring early or late will be essential in deciding when to swap the office for the golf course…

Perhaps one of the most cited studies in this debate is that of employees at Boeing, the world’s leading aerospace company. This research revealed that the earlier a Boeing employee retired, the longer they lived. For example, an employee retiring at 50 lived on average to 86, whereas those working to 65 lived on average just a couple of years after their retirement date. This was of course a shocking message, not least to Boeing who responded with some data of their own, seeming to show no correlation between retirement age and life expectancy post-retirement.

To complicate the matter further, The Institute for Economic Affairs recently published research showing that while the short-term impact of retirement on health is somewhat uncertain, the longer-term effects are consistently negative and large.  Their data, involving a sample of 9,000 people aged 50 – 70, revealed significantly lower self reported health among the retired population compared with those in the workforce. These negative health impacts included both physical and mental health, with retirees 63% more likely to be diagnosed with a physical health condition than the working population, and 41% more likely to be suffering from clinical depression. Worse still, the adverse effects of retirement increased as the number of years spent in retirement increased.

So, according to the study of Boeing employees we should be planning to retire at 55 or earlier if we want to preserve our health and live longer. According to Boeing’s own research, the decision on when to retire has no bearing on our life expectancy at all. And, according to research by the Institute for Economic Affairs, we should actually continue working as long as we can to preserve the particular health benefits of being in the workforce, such as increased physical and social activity.

So, why are we receiving such contradictory advice on the best time to retire in terms of health? Well, it’s largely down to the significant challenges in researching this link. First, retirement decisions are affected by health: people may retire because they are experiencing health concerns that are already reducing both their quality of life and life expectancy. Second, there is a time lag in terms of how long it might take before the health implications of retiring take effect. Finally, when people decide to retire, they may start changing their behavior in anticipation of this lifestyle change for example they may begin eating more healthily or exercising more, both of which will influence their health in retirement.

While the Institute for Economic Affairs perhaps goes the furthest in addressing these challenges, we are still far from a conclusion in this debate. In the coming years we may see the nature of this conversation change quite dramatically as people begin to let go of the idea of retirement as the third definitive life stage (after education and work) and instead move towards long careers with regular sabbaticals with no official expiry date. Some organisations such as the UK’s hardware store B&Q, and the North American steel manufacturer Vita Needle, are already preparing for a cohort of older workers who have abandoned the notion of a fixed retirement age, instead leaving and reentering as and when they need to.

In terms of the golf club membership, best you consider a Pay-As –You Go option for now…

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