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In recent years, popular media and policy discourse in the UK has been replete with discussion and debate about the economic implications of the ageing population.  As the oldest members of the baby-boom cohort begin to reach the widely accepted retirement age of 65 years, the state pension – arguably one of the most significant achievements for the economic well being of older adults in Britain– has increasingly become the target and object of reform.  Life expectancy at age 60 has reached an all time high in Britain, and lower fertility rates over recent decades mean that the ratio of working aged adults to pensioners is on the rise.  With a view to improve rising dependency ratios, and reinforced by overall improvements in population health, the push to keep those approaching retirement age in the workforce longer has been front and centre on the policy agenda. The 2006 OECD report, Live Longer, Work Longer, reinforced such a policy direction, and Britain, like many industrialized countries around the world, implemented changes to extend the working lives of older adults through the postponement of the State Pension Age (SPA). The SPA was set to increase to 68 years for men and women between 2044 and 2046, but an announcement made in December by Chancellor George Osborne signals an even more aggressive policy direction: the SPA will now rise to age 68 by the mid-2030s, a full 10 years earlier. It is also set to increase again to age 69 by late 2040.

To be sure, these developments have generated considerable debate involving questions of intergenerational equity and conflict, and the growing divide between those who will rely heavily on the state pension as their primary income source in retirement and those who will derive the majority of their income from occupational and private pension schemes. Gerontologists, among others in the scholarly community, have questioned the fairness of postponing eligibility for a full state pension, as well as called attention to the potential for even greater social class and gender disparities in economic resources in later life. These issues are critical, but they are not the only questions gerontologists ought to be asking.

Fiscal pressures on social welfare services associated with population ageing and the imperative to reign in spending on state pensions—key motivations behind pushing forward the SPA—have obscured attention from broader questions regarding for who, and under what conditions, working longer will be possible.  Consideration of the implications of longer working lives for health and well being has been virtually absent in policy discussions, with reference only being made to the overall trends in population health. While we know that, on average, individuals are living longer lives, the jury is still out on whether more years translate into more years in good health. More importantly, though, it glosses over the well-documented social class and socioeconomic inequalities in health that we see in later life and across the life course, which are likely to be impacted by changes to the SPA.

Later life can be thought of as reflecting the accumulation of life experiences, including the interaction of individual choices with the opportunities and constraints afforded by social structures, institutions and social safety nets.  Economic circumstances, as well as health and well being in later life, cannot be understood without reference to the consequential labour market and family experiences that precede them.  We know, for example, that those who have worked in lower grade, manual occupations for much of their working lives are more likely to be financially disadvantaged in later life, as well as arrive at retirement age in poorer health than their counterparts who have enjoyed careers in professional occupations.  What is less clear, and what demands urgent attention, is an understanding of whether and how working to later ages will shape health and economic wellbeing.  To date, research has predominantly focused on understanding the link between retirement and health, asking what predicts early retirement, as well as how retirement (as an event) shapes subsequent health. In Britain, we know that poor health and disability are behind the majority of early labour market exits.  Other early retirees typically have the financial means through occupational pensions and private savings and investments to exit paid work prior to the receipt of the state pension.  Both the imperative to keep working, and the consequences of keeping these two groups of older adults in the labour market longer are likely to be profoundly different.

Research investigating how retirement shapes subsequent health reports mixed findings, with some work demonstrating improvements in physical functioning and mental health, while others show declines in well being following labour market exit.  Many conclude that the relationship between retirement and health is not a simple one: it depends on whether its timing is under the individual’s control, whether it is voluntary or forced, gradual or abrupt, and not surprisingly, on individual health status prior to retirement. Moreover, because much of this work has involved cross-sectional or short-term follow up, and conceived of retirement as a one-time event, it is difficult to extrapolate the findings to future cohorts of older adults who will be constrained to work until later ages to access full government benefits.

Fortunately, these issues are starting to be addressed by researchers working in the social sciences, public health, psychiatry and economics.  A recent funding call, the ESRC Lifelong Health and Wellbeing (LLHW) Research Consortium on the Impact of Extending Paid Work in Later Life on Health and Wellbeing, is evidence that a more nuanced understanding of working lives, ageing, health and well being will now start to get the attention it deserves. This is a critical moment for gerontologists, and others working in the social sciences, to carefully evaluate how policy changes are likely to shape well being. A sound evidence base must replace assumptions about the implications for health and well being of working longer. A major initiative, led by Dr. Karen Glaser at the Institute of Gerontology in the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London, in collaboration with colleagues from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s, University College London, the University of Toronto, and the Pensions Policy Institute will address these critical questions in the UK.