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20 May 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 1:31pm

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.

By Philip Booth

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.

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