A new study suggests that retirement can lead to a “drastic decline” in health over the medium and long term. Is this research sound, and what conclusions can we draw?
The “Work Longer, Live Healthier” study, conducted by the UK-based Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), alongside the charity Age Endeavour Fellowship, notes that both life expectancy and healthy living expectancy, in general recognized as the length of time one can live without debilitating illness, has on average increased while the retirement age for many of the UK’s workforce has not.
This means that when taken as a whole, there are fewer people active in the workforce compared to previous generations. Therefore, the researchers wished to examine the question “is the decreased labour force participation rate partly responsible for the improvements in general health,” or, to put it more simply, does working for less of our lives lead to healthier lives?
The IEA analysed data gathered from 7,000-9,000 people all between 50-70 from across 11 European countries and claims to have found that no, this is not the case.
It says the data suggests:
- Retirement decreases the likelihood of being in “very good” or “excellent” self-assessed health by about 40 percent
- Retirement increases the probability of suffering from clinical depression by about 40 percent
- Retirement increases the probability of having at least one diagnosed physical condition by about 60 percent
- Retirement increases the probability of taking a drug for such a condition by about 60 percent.
The study also claims that the duration of time spent in retirement is also significant, saying the data shows longer retirement means the following:
- It decreases the likelihood of being in “very good” or “excellent” self-assessed health by between 10 and 30 percent.
- It increases the probability of suffering from clinical depression by 17 percent.
- It increases the probability of having at least one diagnosed physical condition by 22 percent.
- It increases the probability of taking a drug for such a condition by 19 percent.
What does the IEA draw from this?
Well, it may not surprise you to learn that as a think tank that strongly advocates for a deregulation of the markets and lower taxes, as well as a reduction in welfare spending, the IEA make recommendations that tallies with that ethos, saying the study should point to the necessity of governments taking steps to push back state retirement and pension ages and decrease what it dubs “impediments to continuing paid work in old age” such as “generous” state pensions (of, at most, £110.15 or $167.52 a week).
“Over several decades, governments have failed to deal with the ‘demographic time bomb.’There is now general agreement that state pension ages should be raised,” Philip Booth, Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, is quoted as saying. “The government should take firmer action here and also deregulate labour markets. Working longer will not only be an economic necessity, it also helps people to live healthier lives.”
The paper confines itself to making only general guesses as to how this problem might be tackled, but does allow for concerns that “Employment protection legislation may also play a part in making the employment of older people less attractive” and that “disability provision provides an alternative pathway to retirement rather than a pathway back to the labour market, this can lead to lower economic activity at older age groups.”
Admittedly, the study certainly draws on some valid, evidence-based concerns that retirement presents, in particular, mental health challenges such as depression and loneliness for which working for longer and continuing to enjoy the fulfillment of that work might be a remedy. But does the study actually prove the assertion that “working longer…helps people to live healthier lives”?
Put simply, no. The issue is drastically complicated by a set of factors that are not easily controlled for.
Take, for instance, the fact that quite often declining health necessitates the need to retire because an individual simply cannot maintain performance at their job.
Therefore, when one comes to asses health and compare those who carried on past state retirement age and those who took retirement at that point, caution is needed because you are not necessarily comparing like for like. Those who carried on past the retirement age may have done so precisely because they felt able to do so, while those who didn’t may have been hampered by ill health that then have continued to decline into their retirement.
As the study itself notes, “As such, an observed correlation between health and retirement says nothing about causation,” and though the IEA acknowledges this and goes to great lengths to discuss the causation problem, the IEA study does not manage to entirely side-step the issue making any such pronouncement that retirement is bad for your health dubious at best.
Nor does the study manage to overcome the inherent problems of self-reported feelings about health or a general difficulty in quantifying what “health” is when it is not pinned to specifics, though it does make an attempt at this by in one methodology assessing the number of physical ailments diagnosed and medications used — but again, this does not go far enough to even approach proof.
The research paper also offers pause where it summarily dismisses previous findings about the potential positive health benefits, and while it does partly account for this by differentiating between short term and long term impacts, something it says previous research has failed to do, it does admit that further research is needed before its own conclusions as to the long term impact of retirement can be proved.
So, to say this analysis offers any definitive proof that retirement is bad for a person’s health is disingenuous.
However, the study does point to several reasons, beyond economic factors, as to why governments may wish to reconsider the data and see how it squares against state retirement ages and work and pensions laws in general because clearly there might be some benefit in people being able to choose to work longer and certainly a discussion as to how to ensure fulfilling work lives can continue as long as possible needs to be heard.
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