50 and working? Your days may be numbered

We’re living longer, but that doesn’t mean we can work for longer.

A Lancet study of healthy working life expectancy in England found that, on average, people there can expect to be healthy and in work for only nine-and-a-half years after the age of 50. And not all those years are lived consecutively as people experience health problems.

Fears of a growing aged population draining national finances will see the eligibility age for the Australian Age Pension pushed back to 67 in 2023.

Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) undertook a three-year study, Healthy and working life expectancies in an ageing Australia, because “it is critical that additional years of life are at least matched by the increase in the years lived in good health, and that gains in healthy ageing are experienced across all sectors of society. There is also a great need to balance older adults’ capacity and opportunity to work with societal pressures to delay retirement.”

The Lancet study found “healthy working life expectancy is higher for people in non-manual or self-employed occupations than for those in manual occupations”.

“People living in the least deprived areas tended to stay healthy and in work for almost four years longer (10.53 years) than those living in the most deprived areas (6.80 years).”

People began working longer late last century.

“For well over 100 years, men had been retiring at earlier and earlier ages. Something shifted in the 1990s, and they began working longer. The story for women is different. They weren’t always in the labour force. But now we see employment rates rising for women at every age,” says Nicole Maestas, an associate professor of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School in the United States.

She says in 1970, life expectancy for US citizens who reached age 65 was 78 for men and 82 for women. Today, men and women who have reached 65 will on average live to ages 84 and 86, respectively.

“If you expect to live into your 80s or beyond, it’s natural that you might still be working in your 60s and 70s,” says Assoc. Prof. Maestas.

Some people work longer because today’s information economy jobs are less physically demanding. People in their 60s are in better health today than they were 50 years ago and they’re better educated; people who are more educated are more likely to work at any age. Many longer-lived people must extend their working lives to support themselves.

“In 2017, 32 per cent of people aged 65 to 69 were working, and 19 per cent of people aged 70 to 74 were employed,” reports health.harvard.edu.

“The projection for 2024 is that 36 per cent of people aged 65 to 69 will be in the labour force, far more than the 22 per cent who were working in 1994.”

In Australia, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) says life expectancy for males born from 2016–2018 is 80.7 years and 84.9 years for females – up from 55.2 and 58.8 years respectively for those born from 1901–1910.

If we live longer, governments need more of us working longer.

Australian National University (ANU) figures estimate for every older person, there were five working-age people in 2011. That will be less than three in 2056.

The percentage of the population aged 65 and over is set to increase from 14 per cent in 2023 to 24 per cent in 2056. The old age dependency ratio (the ratio of people aged 65 or more to those aged 15–64) will rise in the same period from 21 per cent to as much as 42 per cent.

An ageing population leads to a shortage in the labour force and increases in expenditure on age pensions, health care services and aged care services.

However, the ANU reported many barriers to ongoing work participation for older people beyond poor health:

  • caring responsibilities
  • lack of non-school qualifications and training
  • age discrimination and workplace inflexibility
  • the demands of manual occupations
  • job dissatisfaction
  • long-term unemployment.

The ANU recommended government policies should:

  • adopt a ‘health first’ approach to address the root cause of worklessness
  • provide more workplace flexibility and rational pathways for older people to work with decreasing health and energy, even with disability
  • increase secure part-time or casual jobs as the economy becomes service-based
  • adopt a whole of life approach to health, employment, and training.

There’s debate about whether working later in life is good for more than your income and the nation’s coffers.

Harvard Health says some studies link working past retirement with better health.

“A 2016 study of about 3000 people, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, suggested that working even one more year beyond retirement age was associated with a 9 per cent to 11 per cent lower risk of dying during the 18-year study period, regardless of health.

“A 2015 study of 83,000 older adults over 15 years, published in the CDC journal Preventing Chronic Disease, suggested that, compared with people who retired, people who worked past age 65 were about three times more likely to report being in good health and about half as likely to have serious health problems, such as cancer or heart disease.”

But stressful jobs are a risk factor for coronary artery disease and stroke, physically demanding occupations increase the risk of serious injury and boring or meaningless jobs add to stress. And plenty of studies find health benefits to retiring, including a “substantial reduction in mental and physical fatigue and depressive symptoms”.

“We do know that staying mentally, socially, and physically active — which working may enable you to do — is good for health.

“Mental stimulation and problem solving are good for maintaining thinking skills; social engagement is associated with staving off chronic disease; and staying physically active, even if it’s just walking, can lead to both better health and sharper thinking skills.”

Assoc. Prof. Maestas recommends working on.

“But be smart about what you’re doing. Don’t stay in a job you hate. Try to find something that’s meaningful and gives you purpose. If you’re happy at work, that’s one sign that work may be good for your health.”

When do you want to stop working? Are you planning for the possibility you might have to stop before you want to? Will you ‘test drive’ retirement before you finally pull the pin?

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Written by Will Brodie


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