Dr Martin Hyde is Associate Professor of Gerontology at the Centre for Innovative Ageing at Swansea University and Deputy Editor of the Ageing and Society Journal. His research on ageing and retirement seeks to explore the work life course, the ways in which people leave work, and the impact that has on their health and wellbeing after they’ve left. We talked to him about how the idea of retirement is changing, the impact of an ageing workforce and whether it is even healthy to retire at all.
What questions are you asking about retirement – and why?
Governments across Europe are keen to encourage us to work longer, and there’s a lot of research at the moment looking at the factors that facilitate that, mitigate against it and what happens to those people who aren’t able to work for longer.
You can trace a lot of this interest back to the World Bank’s 1990s position on pension reform, which argued that the pension systems we have in Europe are no longer sustainable.
Some quarters argued for a move towards privatised pensions, countered by others such as the International Labour Organisation which said that what we really need to do is to improve labour market activity rather than reduce pensions. In other words, if we get more people in work that will alleviate pension stress.
As such, there is a whole movement around active ageing in Europe, and particularly about getting people to work for longer. My work looks at the quality of work, what that does for you – and how that might play out over the life course.
I’ve been looking at what we call the ‘psychosocial working environment’ – or your ability to determine how much work you do, where and how you do it and the amount of control you have over work relative to the demands that are placed upon you.
It’s an interesting time because lots of governments are renegotiating the arbitrary age limit to stop work – for example, in the UK we see the increase of the state pension age and at the same time the removal of the default retirement age.
Ageing populations are a global phenomenon, but is there a global response?
I enjoy looking at how different countries manage their response to this demographic shift and asking whether all countries doing the same thing?
There was a concern that all countries might engage in a “race to the bottom”, heading for a residual welfare state, much like the North American model. I wanted to know whether national governments themselves still have power to enact national policies within the context of their own countries? And actually, we see that they do.
I co-wrote a book called Ageing and Globalisation in 2016 that found evidence of a lot of international variation in whatever we looked at, whether pensions, attitudes to ageing or work rates. We definitely aren’t seeing global homogeneity of the ageing experience.
Are there ways to structurally empower older people in the workplace?
I’m keen to move away from the notion that older people, by definition, need special requirements at work because I think that’s often used as an argument as to why older people shouldn’t work for longer, especially among small employers who might not have that flexibility.
What’s good across Scandinavia, for example, is that they support workers with illness or disability of any age, not just at an arbitrary ‘later life’ age. It’s about being proactive, but it also recognises that most older workers don’t have any problem. They can work, and do continue to work.
Those working later in life have usually been working all the way through; we’re not seeing great numbers coming to work later in life. So if we want to encourage people to work for longer, then we’re going to need to enable them to stay in work at a much earlier point in time.
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Is it healthy to retire?
That is the big question, and we don’t yet know as much as we would like because this is a new phenomenon and research always takes time to catch up. The evidence does seem to be thus far though that good work is good for you and your health, and if you have a bad job then leaving tends to be good for your health.
The idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ work differs according to studies, but generally ‘good work’ is cognitively engaging, and within it, you have control over your ability to do things. It also works that you enjoy doing and gives you satisfaction.
A study in The Netherlands also looked at people who left work but still saw a lot of their identity-based in their previous job and found them to have poorer quality of life than people who had left work but had gone on to identify themselves in new roles such as leisure or being grandparents.
And then there are social networks to consider as a factor – for men in particular, who tend to have a lot of work friends but not necessarily the same outside of work, the loss of the work role can also mean the loss of these networks, which we also know is bad for health.
What positives are there to staying in work past retirement age?
Again, because we haven’t really had people staying in work long enough, then entering the period in which they would begin to get cognitive impairments it’s difficult to be definitive about work being good for your brain.
However, we can say that work tends to be good for things like life satisfaction and has a lot of wellbeing indicators. Some evidence from a study I was involved with also showed that it tends to be associated with maintaining good levels of functional health such as grip strength and the ability to get around.
On the flipside, a study in France on people with poor working environments showed the rate of ill health raises up to the age of retirement and then falls dramatically when they leave. Work by itself isn’t good for you; it has to be the right type.
Conversely, if you get pushed out of work, it is associated with the likelihood of mental health problems and depression. The situation used to be one of cliff-edge retirement – throughout your working life, you would have known a date on which you would eventually stop working.
What is interesting now are the development of newer pathways – people who have ‘unretired’ – having left work and then returning to work again, or people who go into bridge jobs where they move from their career job to a different type of job before retirement or even partial retirement.
What are the impacts of more people in later life staying in the workplace for longer?
Every part of that question needs to be clarified: What do we mean by work?; What do we mean by longer?; Who is it having an impact on?
This is a current debate, particularly around the UK’s default retirement age, with some people feeling that getting rid of it will mean that older workers will just hang on and block younger workers coming up, for example.
I’m skeptical about that; I don’t believe there’s a set number of jobs and once they’re full, that’s it. Evidence shows that work produces work – once you’re working, you need others to support you to be able to continue – for example, things like looking after the kids, fixing computers or cleaning the house because you can’t.
The ideal situation would be that everyone will be healthy and happy and allowed to stay in a job they love, which would hopefully translate into better health, less strain on healthcare and increased taxes – in which case there should be a positive effect on society.
The nightmare scenario would be forcing people to stay in work who are really not able to stay in work. This would have an impact on health, an increased demand for health care – and people who can’t leave work early because disability pathways, for example, are closed down, so they have to stay in a job that makes them sicker and sicker.
Ultimately, the impact will depend on the type of work people are allowed to do, investment in lifelong learning and the political will about how we want society to be organised.
Is it a revolution that is coming, regardless?
Yes, and I think that’s why we need to have this discussion about what types of jobs people are going to be doing and the nature of the working life course. American demographers have even talked about time redistribution, which I think is a radical idea.
It’s calling us to think about these ideas we had in the past, where you went to school you worked, and you retired. If we’re working and living for longer why not take that chunk of life at the end that is all leisure and spread that across the life course instead? Those are the kinds of ideas we need to be talking about
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