Retirement And Health Research Paper

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1. Retirement In Historical Perspective

Retirement as a structural aspect of the life course is a relatively recent phenomenon, institutionalized in industrialized societies only in the twentieth century. ‘Retirement’ is typically defined as later life withdrawal from the workforce, often in conjunction with public and/or employer-provided pension benefits. But growing numbers of workers retire from their career jobs and then take on employment in another job and/or unpaid community service. Retirement— in terms of eligibility for a pension—can no longer be equated with a one-way, one-time exit from the workforce or with the cessation of all productive activity. Neither is retirement occurring at one set age (such as 62 or 65). The proliferation of public and private retirement income programs have encouraged a worldwide trend toward progressively earlier retirement from career jobs (Delsen and Reday-Molvey 1996, Guillemard and Rein 1993), and greater heterogeneity in the age and nature of retirement.

2. Linking Health And Retirement

Scholars are only beginning to unravel the health correlates of both the exit from one’s ‘career’ job and the final exit from any paid employment, as well as life after retirement. Three processes link health and retirement: social selection, role loss, and reduction of role strain.

2.1 Social Selection: Health As An Impetus To Retire

Declines in workers’ health have been shown to shape their decision-making regarding retirement (Anderson and Burkhauser 1985, Mutchler et al. 1999). The bestlaid plans for long-term employment or retirement timing can be destroyed by acute or chronic illness of oneself or one’s spouse (or other relatives requiring care), with the onset of poor health promoting unexpected exits from the labor force. Thus, it is crucial that research on the health impacts of retirement appropriately control for preretirement health status.

2.2 Retirement As Role Loss

The second process is that of role loss. Leaving the workforce can have deleterious effects on health, given the corresponding loss of routine, relationships, identity, and purposive activity. Research has documented the importance of role occupancy for both physical and psychological well-being (Moen et al. 2000). Retirement can increase the vulnerability of those in later adulthood, removing them from the mainstream of society.

2.3 Reduction Of Role Strain

Role exits such as retirement can also be viewed positively, as when workers leave a demanding or stressful job. In line with this reduction of role strain perspective, those who see their jobs as stressful or unrewarding are likely to leave the labor force early. Jobs that are demanding and provide little sense of control have been shown to be negatively related to health and well-being (e.g., Karasek and Theorell 1990). Moreover, poor health is more likely to encourage those with demanding jobs to retire (Hayward et al. 1989).

3. A Life Course, Role Context Perspective

A life course, role context approach to retirement (Moen et al. 2000, Musick et al. 1999) emphasizes the complexity of this transition. The three processes described above may well be operating at different points in the retirement transition for different subgroups or in particular circumstances. For example, health correlates may be related to the timing of retirement as well as retirees’ location in the social structure (gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status), their previous health, and the quality of their prior employment experience. Moreover, experiences and activities after retirement may be key to understanding health and well-being in the retirement years.

3.1 Timing Of Retirement

Both policies (governmental and corporate) and cultural norms shape individual expectations and beliefs about the ‘right’ time to retire (Kohli et al. 1991, Settersten and Mayer 1997). The implications of ‘early’ or ‘late’ retirement or of postretirement employment for health and well-being are not clear. For example, research in the United States shows that men retiring early are not necessarily doing so for health reasons (Burkhauser et al. 1996). Some studies suggest that early retirement may have deleterious health consequences in men’s lives, with early retirement producing more negative effects than later retirement (Palmore et al. 1985), while others have found no change in health based on early retirement (Streib and Schneider 1971). However, in a survey of relatively young retired men in the United Kingdom (McGoldrick 1989) more than half reported improved health as a benefit of retirement, with a quarter seeing it as a major benefit. Health and retirement timing are obviously intertwined; if individuals retire because of health problems, they often feel better off without the physical and psychological demands of their jobs.

3.2 Gender And Linked Lives

Most studies of retirement have focused on men, but women are increasingly retiring from paid work with different experiences and consequences. For example, married women are more likely to retire at an earlier age than single or divorced women and often retire as a consequence of their husbands’ retirement exit. A spouse’s poor health may cause employed wives to remain in the labor force, possibly for financial reasons (O’Rand et al. 1992). And having to care for ailing relatives may become an impetus for retirement, especially for women (Moen et al. 1994, Pavalko and Smith 1999). The coordination of both spouses’ retirements and its implications for each spouse’s health remain topics for future research.

3.3 Conditions Of Work

The psychological impact of retirement appears to depend both on gender and on previous job stress, with men who leave high-stress jobs experiencing a reduction in distress symptoms, and men who leave low-stress jobs reporting an increase in distress symptoms. There are fewer effects, in either direction, for women undergoing retirement (Wheaton 1990). As Herzog et al. (1991) found among older US workers, being able to work one’s preferred number of hours (rather than more or less) is positively related to physical health and life satisfaction, and negatively related to depression, regardless of gender or occupational status. Those who stopped work and felt they had little or no choice reported lower levels of health and well-being than both the voluntarily retired and those working the amount they would like. Another study (Gallo et al. 2000) found that late-life involuntary job loss through downsizing was related to declines in both physical functioning and mental health. While particular conditions of jobs at one point in time have been associated with health and well-being on the one hand, or stress and illness on the other (Karasek and Theorell 1990), a life course, role context approach suggests the importance of considering an individual’s work patterns throughout adulthood.

3.4 Employment Patterns, Health, And Mortality

The nature of jobs and career trajectories can have long-term health implications. Studies have shown that men retiring from high-status occupations and ‘orderly’ career paths experience better health and greater longevity than those in manual occupations or those who have held a series of unrelated jobs (Moore and Hayward 1990, Pavalko et al. 1993).

Most of the studies linking health with career patterns have focused on men. The whole process of retirement may well be a different experience for women than men, in part because of the historical difference in their attachment to the labor force. When men leave their jobs they are exiting from a role that has typically dominated their adult years. Women, on the other hand, commonly experience greater discontinuity, moving in and out of the labor force and in and out of part-time jobs in conjunction with shifting family responsibilities. Consequently, they are less likely to have the same duration of employment or accumulation of work experience as men (Han and Moen 1999), and may be more likely to already have fulfilling roles outside of employment. Whether the findings about the longevity and health benefits of orderly career paths and high-status jobs apply to women as well is an important topic for future investigation. One recent study suggests that employment for women in their 50s and 60s may slow the onset of physical limitations (Pavalko and Smith 1999).

Ethnic and racial minorities, as well as those low in socioeconomic status, are more disadvantaged in terms of their career paths, health, and retirement pensions, creating a cumulation of disadvantage in addition to their increased risk of retiring because of a disability (Shea et al. 1996).

3.5 Life After Retirement

Postretirement employment is a key, yet understudied, aspect of employment history. ‘Bridge jobs’ following retirement are often very different from the career jobs from which workers retired (Henretta 1992), but they may ease the potentially disruptive transition out of the labor force. It is important to examine both pre-and postretirement employment histories to fully understand the linkages between work, retirement, and health, and to consider various forms of productive engagement following retirement.

Both paid and unpaid work after retirement have been linked to longevity, health, and psychological well-being (Moen et al. 2000). This confirms the protective effects of role participation, but studies have shown that the context of that participation matters as well. For example, Musick et al. (1999) found that volunteering had a protective effect on mortality for those with low levels of informal social interaction.

Another key context shaping life after retirement is marriage. Pienta et al. (2000) have shown the health benefits of marriage for those moving into the retirement years.

4. Retirement Exigencies And Possibilities

Most research shows that being retired has no deleterious effects on either physical or psychological health; most retirees say they are satisfied with their retirement and some even report better health (Atchley 1976, Quick and Moen 1998). The issue is not whether retirement influences health, or vice versa, but the pathways to health and well-being in the postretirement years. Research evidence makes it clear that good health is an important prerequisite for the enjoyment of the retirement years, as is economic security (Szinovacz and Washo 1992).

Both increasing longevity and the aging of the babyboom cohort suggest that the retirement passage is in considerable flux, as growing numbers of workers can expect to spend a considerable proportion of their life course retired from their primary career jobs. Moreover, retirees in the twenty-first century tend to be healthier, better educated, and more active compared to those in the middle of the twentieth century.

The retirement transition can offer an occasion for the development of a new identity and can foster the adoption of new roles and new health behaviors. Workers retire, not only because of poor health, but sometimes because of good health, wanting to do something else. And retirees with excellent health are more likely to return to the workforce (Mutchler et al. 1999). But there are few institutionalized opportunities for meaningful engagement after retirement (Riley et al. 1994). Existing structural arrangements, policies, norms, and practices fail to provide the opportunities and challenges that can fully exploit the possibilities of life—and health—after retirement.


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