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Working past retirement can keep you healthy

Working past retirement can keep you healthy

Picture of Ruxandra Guidi
[Photo by Scott Lewis via Flickr.]

I recently paid a visit to my friend Jeffrey, an African-American man in his early sixties, while he was at his office. His nonprofit organization job in Los Angeles requires him to sit regularly at a desk, facing a computer, getting up only occasionally for meetings and visits with clients. About a month ago, Jeffrey underwent heart surgery and could only take a little less than two weeks off to recover. He regrets having to be back at work full-time, wishing he could retire soon.

“I burned through some of my retirement savings caring for my aunt when she was sick some years ago, so I can’t afford to retire yet,” he told me. “Who knows when I will?” He currently receives health insurance through his employer — he’s not old enough yet to qualify for Medicare — so the cost of his recent medical bills makes him think twice before giving up that care or his steady income.

Like Jeffrey, there are a growing number of people in the U.S. over age 65 who either don’t want to or can’t afford to stop working. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an estimated 18.8% of Americans ages 65 and older (almost 9 million people) reported being employed full- or part-time last year, continuing an increase that began in the year 2000.

Overall, people are living increasingly healthier and longer lives. Average life expectancies for both men and women have increased, so retirement can now stretch over decades.

I’ve been interested in exploring this phenomenon of older workers and the disparities they face since reporting on aging issues in Los Angeles for the past year.  A growing segment of the U.S. population is now over 65 years of age, and in the future, more people will be expected to keep working until later in life. These coming changes raise important questions: What challenges do older workers face? Does working past the traditional retirement age help or harm their health? Are employers reluctant to hire older workers, and if so why? And are there changes that the workplace — and the workers themselves — can make to reduce disparities?

Earlier this summer, I attended Columbia University’s Age Boom Academy, a workshop for journalists on how to effectively communicate issues of health and work in older age. Various experts — from researchers to policy-makers and demographers — debated the future of older workers by first challenging our society’s definition of “productivity.”

“Our decision to work longer is always framed from the perspective of an employee’s productivity,” said Axel Börsch-Supan, a researcher with the Munich Center for the Economics of Aging at the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy in Germany. “But we must look at the role of the employer: What are the physical, social, psychological conditions and the work environment like; what is the hierarchy there like?”

The perception that older workers make mistakes and are less productive doesn’t really hold up, Börsch-Supan said. In fact, his research found that older workers can be more reliable and productive than their younger colleagues.

"The people who choose to remain employed at older ages typically have greater levels of education and good health,” the Brooking Institution’s Gary Burtless said. Meanwhile, those with poorer health status drop out of the workforce. “My research shows that earlier investments in education mean an investment in a better old age and in health,” Burtless explained.

Given that physical and mental health issues can be especially problematic for older low-income Americans, they appear to be less likely to be able to stay in the workforce, when they in fact might need it the most.

Research shows that older workers who stay in the workplace get an added, non-financial benefit: Their work keeps them healthy, too. “When we look at older people’s brains, we tend to see higher cognitive ability if they continue to work,” said Ursula Staudinger, an aging researcher at Columbia University. According to Staudinger, this is in part due to the “protective effect of social interaction” in the workplace, as well as to continued learning, which helps build different neural networks in the brain.

In recent years, some U.S. employers have begun to consider the reality of keeping and even recruiting older workers. Part of that requires building healthy working environments with more flexible hours and providing workers with opportunities for skills building. Brooks Brothers, the clothing manufacturer and retailer, is a model of such a company: Half of its workers are age 55 or older; workers who are sick -- or who need to care for a sick relative -- have the ability to take time off; and all workstations are ergonomically designed.

Recent research has found that, contrary to most stereotypes, the mind stays malleable throughout our life span. In other words, we’re never too old to learn new tasks, and learning keeps our brains active and young. By the same token, long-term exposure to highly routinized work has detrimental effects on cognitive functioning.

“Employers can make small changes that make a big difference for workers, especially older ones,” said Staudinger. Diversifying the work day, cultivating a collaborative, inter-generational workforce and teaching older workers new skills goes a long way in keeping them in better health.

Someone like Jeffrey may not be able to stop working any time soon, but he recognizes that his current job keeps him engaged for now. It also may, in the long run, help him stay active in his later years. “It’s not a terrible problem to have,” he told me, “I consider myself lucky to still be able to work and have so many other passions right now.


[Photo by Scott Lewis via Flickr.]


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