Yay for the Center for Retirement Research, which is doing its part to rectify the dearth of research on workers age 65 and up. Dubbing their subjects “the elderly,” a paper by economists Steven Haider and David Loughran titled “Elderly Labor Supply: Work or Play?” looks at who in this group works, at what, and why they stop. Here are some of their findings, some predictable and some considerably less so:
• The higher the level of education, the more likely a person — at any age — is to be employed. Not surprising. The disparity increases in late life: at ages 77-79, 4 percent of dropouts work compared with 14 percent of those with more than a college level education. The authors saw same pattern across studies that looked at wealth.
• Ditto health: The healthier a person, the more likely s/he is to be employed. What we tend to lose sight of, though, is that this is true of workers of all ages. (Of course, education, wealth, and health, are likely to be highly correlated.)
• The elderly work fewer hours than younger people. “Nonetheless,” observe Haider and Loughran, “it is remarkable that 29 percent of workers ages 65 and above, and 24 percent of workers ages 70 and above continue to work full-time.” The proportion people 80 and above who work full time has been rising steadily.
• The elderly, even highly educated and full-time workers, earn less than younger workers and less than they once did. However, the paper cites “strong evidence” that this pattern “is at least partly attributable to a process in which individuals gradually select into lower paying jobs, and perhaps jobs with lower levels of responsibility as well.”
• Elderly workers are far more likely to have flexible work arrangements, which the authors suggest may be a trade-off for the low pay. “In this sense, work may be closer to leisure for the majority of elderly workers,” they write — a problematic claim. Work is not leisure. The distinction is blurred by the observation that the elderly feel that working contributes to their physical and mental well-being. This is , completely consistent with my findings; whether or not income is the driver, all of my subjects are glad they work.
It’ll be interesting to see how this landscape changes as physically demanding jobs continue to diminish, computer literacy rises, and employers are forced to accommodate the demands of experienced workers for more flexible work arrangements.