Working beyond retirement - the new prescription for good health?

Blog posts

8 Dec 2016

Stephen BevanProfessor Stephen Bevan, Head of HR Research Development

For some young people taking their first tentative steps into the world of work, the idea of a 50-year career and retirement at around 70 must be a daunting prospect. Aside from the challenges of getting into a career in the first instance, many are also struggling to get onto the property ladder and too few can even consider putting very much of their incomes into pension savings. For them, 2066 feels a long way off. Among many of the Baby Boomers approaching retirement, the situation is perhaps more complex still. The decisions they face about retirement will be affected by financial considerations of course (including the fact that the state pension age has been extended) and by other factors such as family commitments, housing and health.

Gone are the days when we could safely assume that the average working man would retire at 65 after a lifetime of toil, and then die peacefully after 5 years of contented retirement. These days it is more likely that most of us will live for between 15 and 20 years after we retire (among French women the average is 29 years!). This is a game-changing shift in life expectancy that has huge ramifications for employers, for pension policy, for the NHS and for families. At an individual level we are only just finding out how well people cope with the prospect of not being employed for almost the same length of time as they held down a job or crafted a career.

One thing is certain, for many older people, extending their working lives beyond the point at which they may have previously hoped to retire is becoming a financial and, perhaps, a psychological necessity. Of course many take to retirement like a duck to water and manage the transition from work easily. For others, the time around retirement can be very difficult and confusing. For example, in the UK there are 2.9 million people out of work who are aged between 50 and state pension age. Of these, only 0.7 million see themselves as retired, yet 1.7 million think it is unlikely that they will ever work again. In addition, the number of people going back to work having previously retired is now at a very high level.

Today, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has highlighted another vital aspect of this changing landscape – the health benefits of working longer. Her annual surveillance report, published today, challenges us all to think again about the way we consider the impact of work on the health of older citizens. I was very pleased to be asked (along with Dr Richard Heron and Dr Justin Varney) to co-author a chapter in the CMO’s report looking at this very question. Our clear conclusion was that we should be placing much more emphasis on the many health benefits of working longer, whilst working to mitigate the more harmful features of some kinds of work.

On the face of it, the growing burden of chronic illness in the UK’s ageing population looks like a serious impediment to the wider policy objective of encouraging us all to work longer. Indeed, of the 7.2 million people aged 50-64 who are employed, 42 per cent are living with a health condition or disability. The good news is that, for many of these people, our knowledge about how to help people of all ages with chronic conditions to remain active and fulfilled at work have improved immeasurably (indeed IES is carrying out a number of studies in this area). In addition, we also know much more about the health benefits of good-quality work which gives people social connections, control, autonomy, variety and, of course, income.

Of course, the prolonged physical demands of some manual jobs and the psychological pressure of working in healthcare, education and other emotionally demanding careers may mean that we need to support older workers to review their careers and acquire new skills so that they can find sustainable work which may be better suited to their later life capabilities and preferences. There are now many more employers who are finding that accommodating older workers who may have health challenges is not as complex as they feared, and that the benefits of retaining and having access to the know-how and wisdom they offer is of immense value.

In post-Brexit Britain the debate about our sources of skilled labour will focus inevitably on both migration policy and on the capacity of our education system to deliver. What Sally Davies has done today is to remind us that older workers represent another prime source of skilled labour which, if we can overcome some of our prejudices and adapt some of our working practices, stands ready to fill jobs and deliver added-value performance in ways which benefit both the wider economy and their own health and wellbeing.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.