Working past the traditional retirement could be good for your health, but only if you’re rich

Is working well into the traditional retirement years good for your health—or not?

The question might have seemed absurd in the early post–World War II decades as aging workers retired earlier and earlier. Work was associated with mental and physical exhaustion from the daily grind at the office or assembly line. Scholars, developers, financial advisors, and other members of the retirement ecosystem promoted the idea that retirement improved health. The days of work-related stress were done, and there was more time to pursue leisure activities.

What about now? Since the early 1990s, increasing numbers of older workers have put off retirement for a variety of reasons. Among them: the higher monthly Social Security check that comes with filing past full retirement age; generational improvements in education and health; the decline in physically demanding jobs; and too many workers reaching retirement age with little to no savings. In 2022, 32% of the 65-to-69 age cohort have jobs, up from less than one-quarter in 2000. Two decades ago, nearly 10% of 55-year-olds were retired; the current comparable figure is about 5%. The trend toward longer work lives is broad-based.

“Older men are more likely to work than older women, and older people with college degrees are more likely to work than those without,” notes a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. “But all these groups have seen increases in labor force participation over the past two decades.”

Are these workers putting their mental and physical health at risk by working for another couple of years? Or does staying engaged with your profession actually improve overall health?

“Hard question: Work may affect your health, but at the same time your health affects your ability to work,” writes Nicole Maestas, a professor of health care policy at the Harvard Medical School, in an email. “Research on how working affects health is mixed, but tends toward the positive—that is, for many people there are health benefits to working longer”

Why might working longer benefit health? The act of showing up at work calls for some physical motion. Work-related tasks can keep the brain active. But by far the most important health-related factor is that it can offer social connections and engagement. Gossip is the common currency of cubicle cultures and factory break rooms. Some people find purpose in their profession, whether it’s a machinist tapping into years of experience to sculpt metal or an office worker organizing a company event. A review of 10 studies looking into the experiences of retirees from Australia, Japan, and the U.S. didn’t find any negative effects from working or volunteering past retirement age. Four of the reviewed studies documented positive returns.

In a striking passage from “Early Retirement, mental health, and social networks,” economists Axel Borsch-Supan and Morten Schuth captured the essential potential benefit of working well into the traditional retirement years. “Work, even if unpleasant and arduous, provides social contacts,” they write. “Even disliked colleagues and a bad boss, it may be assumed, are better than social isolation because they provide cognitive challenges which keep the mind healthy and active.”

Take the experience of Dan McDermott, age 60. He has worked in the information technology industry in a variety of management roles, and he enjoys his work and colleagues. He is currently chief information officer for a private equity owned plastics manufacturer based in the Twin Cities with 45 locations in the U.S. He also writes a blog focused on exploring the idea of phased retirement. “I took some good-natured heat from people saying, ‘Well, you’re talking about this notion of a phased retirement, and yet you kind of went the other way,’” he laughs. “And I say, ‘Yeah, well, I didn’t say I was doing it next year.’”

McDermott says he particularly likes working with people from different generations. He’s part of a community of information technology peers who share insights and support. A runner for the past 20 years, he’s in good health. While he’s in no rush, McDermott is thinking about what portfolio of activities, including work, could give him purpose during the next stage of life. “So as my regular normal career starts to wrap up, what do I want for my purpose? I don’t have an answer for that yet,” he says. “I mean, you can only play golf so much.”

Case closed in favor of continuing to work? Hardly. Spend some time looking at various careful studies on the question, and the results vary considerably. In “Does retirement improve health and life satisfaction?” the authors found “strong evidence that retirement improves reported health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”

Yet in “The mortality effects of retirement: Evidence from Social Security eligibility at age 62,” the scholars found a “robust 2% increase in male mortality immediate after age 62,” and their analysis suggests the increase is connected to lifestyle changes in retirement.

“The evidence is mixed,” says Courtney Coile, professor of economics at Wellesley College. “The science is unsettled.”

The answer to the question probably lies in what the overall averages tend to mask: deep-rooted health inequities in the U.S. labor market. For those with good careers and good benefits, retirement may well mean a time to try an encore career, experiment with self-employment, find part-time work, or stick with a current employer for a few more years. Work is an engaging activity, offering both purpose and a paycheck. Even with some minor age-related disabilities setting in, work can help keep an older person physically and mentally active. Work and health care support each other in a virtuous cycle.

“Who is working at these older ages? It tends to be people whose health permits them to continue working, and who have jobs that aren’t so wearing and tearing,” says Susann Rohwedder, associate director of the RAND Center for the Study of Aging. “And with that, they can still be productive, and they stay engaged, both socially and in doing something meaningful—maybe even fun for some.”

Yet plenty of people spend their work lives earning low wages while employed at companies that don’t offer employees retirement savings plans and health insurance. Poor health is a major reason people retire early, and the evidence is clear that health disparities are disturbingly deep among workers with less formal education, low wage earners, and minorities. Work and health are in a downward cycle. “Looking at the statistics on life expectancy by lifetime earnings, the top has made a lot of gains,” says Rohwedder. “And the lower part either hardly any gains at all, or in some cases, even decreases.”

Odds are, individuals with good careers will see health benefits from working longer, especially if the job is less stressful than during their primary career. Working longer and better health can mutually reinforce each other, at least for a time. Earning extra income during the retirement years is always good for household finances too. The challenge as a society is to take public policy actions to address health inequities that are a major barrier to longer work lives. There are many good reasons people should work longer, but only if their health allows it.

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