Work longer, live healthier? The health implications of retirement

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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…

Three Perspectives on Dealing With Generational Diversity

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Tina Schneidermann - Portrait 03 by LK - CONTRASTBy Tina Schneidermann, COO, The Hot Spots Movement

A theme which many academics – including the Hot Spots Movement founder Professor Lynda Gratton – are thinking about the moment is that of generational diversity. In light of this, I thought it would be interesting to share some of the ideas and findings discussed at the mid-way workshop of our Inclusion & Diversity Research Consortium and what they mean for organisations.

According to Lynda’s research, diversity agendas are currently changing in two vital ways. Focus is shifting away from gender diversity towards generational and life stage diversity. Essentially, with many Baby Boomers planning to work beyond the age of 65 and Gen Z-ers fast approaching the age where they will start to enter the workplace, organisations are facing the issue of generational diversity for the first time. Beyond this, there is also the question of life stage diversity. As people’s life spans
lengthen, life stages become more a more important differentiating factor. In fact, life stage diversity is on the brink of becoming the most important workplace diversity issue – far more so than gender or generational diversity – and yet it is something that few organisations are currently prepared to deal with. Is this because addressing this appropriately would require a profound review of the career concept?

Age as a prism

These issues are informing the research paths of many leading academics. For Professor Jacquelyn B. James*, Director of Research, Sloan Centre on Aging and Work and Research Professor, Lynch School of Education, Boston College, life stage diversity is of such importance that it will come to inform recruitment, engagement and retention processes.

According to Jacquelyn and her team, whereas in the past workers of a similar age were most likely to be at a similar life stage, today their circumstances could be very different. Their research focuses on how we think about demographics in a society where some 40 year-olds are embarking on parenthood while others are becoming grandparents. As a result, age is becoming a prism where how old or young you feel depends on your life stage and the point you have reached in your career rather than your chronological age.

It follows that in order to nurture and support talent at all life stages, business must ensure they factor life stage diversity into their processes. And to do this, they need to completely reassess the way they think about some familiar issues. Dr Hans-Joachim Wolfram*, Lecturer in Occupational Psychology and Research Methods at Kingston University is doing just this, and in the process is turning many of the diversity field’s most familiar hypotheses on their head. According to Hans-Joachim, when it comes to the work-family interplay, it is in fact job role importance rather than family life importance which increases the propensity to take up flexible working options, and it is those who place greater importance on their job role who experience greater positive spillover between their work and family life.

What these overlapping research streams demonstrate is that the field of diversity is becoming – somewhat ironically – ever more diverse. Organisations will face a steep learning curve as they come to terms with the vastly divergent needs of their employees. The ideas discussed in this post reveal is how much value academics have to offer in this field. One of the reasons we at the Hot Spots Movement are so passionate about running research consortiums is that they provide a vital opportunity for research academics and business practitioners to come together to find effective ways of tackling such issues.

Tina Schneidermann is COO of the Hot Spots Movement. To learn more about the Inclusion and Diversity or Future of Work research consortiums, visit the Hot Spots Movement website.