Work offers a routine and purpose, a reason for getting up in the morning.
Are there health benefits to staying in the workforce longer?
The scientific research is inconclusive, though it tends to tilt toward “yes.” This is particularly pronounced among people who find work fulfilling in the first place, who tend to be office workers, teachers and others whose workplace is not, say, a factory or a construction site.
More so than people in most previous generations, baby boomers are continuing to work past their early 60s, often well beyond. Sometimes, this means delaying retirement from a longtime job, but it can instead involve some kind of bridge job, part-time employment or self-employment. It turns out that, these days, older Americans who retire — in the sense of completely withdrawing from the paid labor force — are increasingly in the minority.
“What is the benefit of work? Activation of the brain and activation of social networks may be critical,” Nicole Maestas, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, said in an interview.
Researchers have long assumed that only well-educated and healthier people benefit from working after a certain age. Lately, however, scholars and retirees themselves have been exploring an intriguing question with implications for both potential workers and policymakers: Is a job a force for keeping older people mentally and physically healthy?
Mark Truitt, 70, a longtime educator in Pembroke Pines, Florida, weighs in on the “yes” side. He has tried to retire four or five times but keeps returning — part time — to the working world. “I’ve seen a number of teachers who retire and don’t do anything they think is of value, and they go into decline pretty fast,” he said.
Truitt now puts in about 10 hours a week as a consultant with the Council for Educational Change, a Florida nonprofit that encourages business executives and principals to collaborate to improve school leadership. “I’m loving the heck out of it,” he said.
Academics who have studied the correlation between health and working into the senior years say this: Work offers a routine and purpose, a reason for getting up in the morning. The workplace is a social environment, a community. Depending on your occupation, doing your job involves engaging with cubicle mates, bosses, subordinates, union brothers and sisters, suppliers, vendors and customers. The incentive for workers to invest in their health while employed is strong.
“In the beginning when you retire, it might feel more like a holiday,” said Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren, the director of research at the Center for the Study of Market Reform of Education and a Ph.D. student at the London School of Economics. “But after that, we see more of a ‘use it or lose it’ effect.”
If the engagement and connections from a job — as well as the income — can contribute to a healthier older population, the implication is that policymakers should make it easier for older workers to engage in paid work. “This does not mean politicians should force people to ‘work until they die,’” Heller-Sahlgren said. “They should remove disincentives to working.”
Heller-Sahlgren looked at the short- and longer-term effects of retirement on mental health. His database — drawn from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe over various years — found that there was no short-term impact of retirement on mental health, as defined as a range of depressive tendencies (such as appetite, concentration, fatigue and so on) to clinical depression.
The survey results, Heller-Sahlgren said, suggest that the negative effects of retirement start to appear after the first few years of ceasing to work. The results, he found, do not differ by sex or between people with different educational and occupational backgrounds.
“Relationships rule,” said William Wells Jr., 72, who owns a consulting business in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, that specializes in ethnic and racial diversity. Wells cut back on his hours several years ago when his granddaughter was born, but the 15 to 20 hours he estimates he spends on work do not count networking and going out to dinner with potential clients. “I’m still doing 10 hours or so just networking and relationship building,” he said.
Sharon Wills, 65, still works for the company with which she spent her career. “I don’t do well at home,” said Wills, who started working for the staffing company Kelly Services in 1986, eventually specializing in recruitment.
She lives in Amarillo, Texas, and she retired in 2011, taking a year off — and not loving it. When the company called and asked if she wanted to become a “ninja” — someone who helps out branches or locations around the country — she leapt at the opportunity.
“There is a lot to learn about our business,” Wills said, adding that she has continued to absorb new skills. “The way we recruit now is not the way we recruited 25 years ago.”
Despite what may seem like obvious benefits, scholars can’t make definitive statements about the health effects of working longer. The research is inherently difficult: Just as retirement can influence health, so can health influence retirement.
“I would say, in my experience, the research is mixed,” said Maestas of Harvard Medical School. “The studies I have seen tend to show that there are health benefits to working longer.”
As economists Axel Borsch-Supan and Morten Schuth of the Munich Center for the Economics of Aging of the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy put it in an article for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Even disliked colleagues and a bad boss, we argue, are better than social isolation because they provide cognitive challenges that keep the mind active and healthy.”
Other studies have examined the impact of work and employment on the richness of social networks and social connectedness. Economists Eleonora Patacchini of Cornell University and Gary Engelhardt of Syracuse University tapped into a database of some 1,300 people from ages 57 to 85 that asked about their social networks in 2005 and 2010. After controlling for marital status, age, health and income, they concluded that people who continued to work enjoyed an increase in the size of their networks of family and friends of 25 percent. The social networks of retired people, on the other hand, shrank during the five-year period. In the study, the gains were found to be largely limited to women and older people with postsecondary education.
Adding a piece to the puzzle is research conducted about AARP Experience Corps, a nonprofit enterprise run by AARP that brings people age 50 and over into elementary schools. The project started in five cities in 1995 and has since expanded to 20 metropolitan areas. And in a series of studies, volunteers found physical benefits from getting to and from school, as well as cognitive gains from interacting with children.
“Volunteering and paid work produces better physical and mental health,” said Linda Fried, a founder of the Experience Corps who is also dean of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “People need purpose. They need a reason to get up in the morning.”
Not everyone can work into old age or desires to do so. The thought of working longer in low-wage jobs or on the assembly line can be painful. As H.L. Mencken, the journalist and satirist, wrote in 1922: “If he got no reward whatever, the artist would go on working just the same; his actual reward, in fact, is often so little that he almost starves. But suppose a garment worker got nothing for his labor: Would he go on working just the same?”