Being out of work harms your health – even if it's because you've retired

A new report finds that, after a small boost in health, retirement isn't as refreshing as many think.

A curious thing has been happening with regard to retirement patterns in developed countries: we have been living longer and retiring earlier. Between 1968 and 1999, employment amongst 60-64 year old men fell from 80 per cent to 50 per cent – although it has picked up a little since. In Italy, an incredible 80 per cent of 60-64 year olds are not in employment. This has all happened during a period when life expectation has increased dramatically. In many EU countries, a significant number of people could well spend more time in retirement than working.

Of course, as we get more prosperous we would expect to have more leisure. But there comes a point when financing a longer retirement from a shorter working life becomes unsustainable. Most EU countries, with their state pension schemes designed so that the taxes of the declining working generation pay the pensions of the older generation, have reached the point where huge financial burdens are likely to fall on the next generation of workers. One way to square the circle is to promote more private and funded pension provision. However, one of the few countries that was pursuing this policy – the UK – has now decided to change tack and increase state pensions whilst reducing incentives for private provision.

This leaves working longer as the only safety valve in the system. And many countries have, indeed, been raising state pension ages. However, a concern often expressed by those campaigning against such changes is that it will lead to more ill health. It is argued that people will suffer from stress and will not have the physical capacity to continue their working lives without damaging their health further.

Much of the evidence in this area has been mixed. The indications were that retirement and ill health were correlated but it could be that people who are not well tend to retire early. A new IEA study manages to untangle the evidence. It finds that there can be an immediate “holiday effect” from retirement whereby health improves. However, health then deteriorates after a while. It is found that, over the long term, retirement increases the probability of suffering from depression by 40 per cent and the probability of having at least one diagnosed physical condition by about 60 per cent.

This provides considerable evidence that there can be a “win-win” from the government raising the state pension age much more rapidly. Currently, the government expects to raise the state pension age to 68 by about 2047. By that time, in fact, life expectation at retirement will actually increase – longevity is increasing quicker than the state pension age is being raised. A higher state pension age could lower healthcare costs as well as reduce state pension costs. Secondly, the government should deregulate labour markets – especially for older people. Reducing the risks to employers of hiring older people is likely to widen the range of working opportunities available to them – especially with regard to part-time work. Finally, it is important to ensure that state incapacity benefits are used as a route back into work wherever possible and not used as an early retirement option. The government seems to be making good progress here but, if anything, on the first two policy options it seems to be going backwards.

A notable retiree says goodbye to his old workplace. Photograph: Getty Images

Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

 

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I am special and I am worthless: inside the mind of a narcissist

There's been a lot of discussion about narcissists this week. But what does the term actually mean?

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the term “narcissistic” has been cropping up with great regularity in certain sections of the media, including the pages of this journal. I wouldn’t want to comment about an individual I’ve never met, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the troubling psychological health problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD (which is estimated to affect about 1 per cent of the population) have a characteristic set of personality traits. First, they have a deeply held sense of specialness and entitlement. Male NPD sufferers frequently present as highly egotistical, with an unshakeable sense of their superiority and importance; female sufferers commonly present as eternal victims on whom the world repeatedly inflicts terrible injustices. In both cases, the affected person believes he or she is deserving of privileged treatment, and expects it as a right from those around them.

Second, NPD sufferers have little or no capacity for empathy, and usually relate to other people as objects (as opposed to thinking, feeling beings) whose sole function is to meet the narcissist’s need for special treatment and admiration – known as “supply”. In order to recruit supply, NPD sufferers become highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions of them, acting out what is called a “false self” – the glittering high achiever, the indefatigable do-gooder, the pitiable victim.

The third characteristic is termed “splitting”, where the world is experienced in terms of two rigid categories – either Good or Bad – with no areas of grey. As long as others are meeting the narcissist’s need for supply, they are Good, and they find themselves idealised and showered with reciprocal positive affirmation – a process called “love-bombing”. However, if someone criticises or questions the narcissist’s false self, that person becomes Bad, and is subjected to implacable hostility.

It is not known for certain what triggers the disorder. There is likely to be a genetic component, but in many cases early life experiences are the primary cause. Narcissism is a natural phase of child development (as the parents of many teenagers will testify) and its persistence as adult NPD frequently reflects chronic trauma during childhood. Paradoxically for a condition that often manifests as apparent egotism, all NPD sufferers have virtually non-existent self-esteem. This may arise from ongoing emotional neglect on the part of parents or caregivers, or from sustained psychological or sexual abuse.

The common factor is a failure in the development of a healthy sense of self-worth. It is likely that narcissism becomes entrenched as a defence against the deep-seated shame associated with these experiences of being unworthy and valueless.

When surrounded by supply, the NPD sufferer can anaesthetise this horrible sense of shame with the waves of positive regard washing over them. Equally, when another person destabilises that supply (by criticising or questioning the narcissist’s false self) this is highly threatening, and the NPD sufferer will go to practically any lengths to prevent a destabiliser adversely influencing other people’s perceptions of the narcissist.

One of the many tragic aspects of NPD is the invariable lack of insight. A narcissist’s experience of the world is essentially: “I am special; some people love me for this, and are Good; some people hate me for it, and are Bad.” If people with NPD do present to health services, it is usually because of the negative impacts Bad people are having on their life, rather than because they are able to recognise that they have a psychological health problem.

Far more commonly, health professionals end up helping those who have had the misfortune to enter into a supply relationship with an NPD sufferer. Narcissism is one of the most frequent factors in intimate partner and child abuse, as well as workplace bullying. The narcissist depends on the positive affirmation of others to neutralise their own sense of unworthiness. They use others to shore themselves up, and lash out at those who threaten this precarious balance. And they leave a trail of damaged people in their wake. 

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times