Delaying retirement refers to the process of increasing the average age of effective labor market exit, meaning that individuals in society on average remain in the labor force longer.
In an attempt to solve the high youth unemployment rates resulting from the 1970s economic crisis, many developed countries introduced early retirement schemes in order to take older individuals out of the labor market and free up jobs for younger workers (Blossfeld et al. 2011). These policies were informed by the idea that there is a fixed number of jobs available in a given economy – the “lump of labor” idea. They allowed older workers to retire well before the official retirement age with relatively small pension reductions. Increasingly, early retirement became the standard and was perceived as a “social right” so that people could spend some years resting in relatively good health after a long career (Ebbinghaus and Hofäcker 2013).
Key Research Findings
Individuals have different reasons for retiring from the labor market. Reasons for retirement have typically been conceptualized in terms of push and pull factors, distinguishing involuntary retirement from voluntary retirement due to financial incentives (Ebbinghaus and Hofäcker 2013; Jensen 2005). More recently, scholars have widened our understanding of drivers of retirement by adding a focus on work identity and reasons for remaining in employment.
Push factors refer to reasons for involuntary exit from the labor market: individuals might have preferred to remain in employment, but circumstances do not allow them to do so, pushing them into retirement (Vickerstaff 2006). Involuntary retirement can result from a number of causes, including discrimination (ageism) and economic restructuring, though health is consistently cited as a key driver (see, for example, the recent systematic review from Edge et al. 2017). Chronic diseases are strongly implicated in this as they typically develop around 10–15 years from retirement age (Barnett et al. 2012) and are associated with functional and mobility limitations and pain. With respect to particular conditions, arthritis and depression account for the highest proportion of involuntary exits (Black 2008).
The literature on ageism in the workplace (Naegele et al. 2018) suggests that older workers are typically perceived as less productive, less adaptable, and less healthy than their younger colleagues. Based on these age stereotypes, older workers are discriminated against in terms of being more likely to be made redundant (Ng and Feldman 2012), and once unemployed, ageism hampers their search for new employment (Baert et al. 2016). However, its effect on retirement goes beyond mere hiring and firing: older workers are less likely to be invested in through education and training (Guillemard 2003). As a result, their knowledge and skills become outdated, making them vulnerable to layoffs in case of restructuring within the firm, and making it harder for them to find new employment once made redundant. Hence, lifelong learning is an important tool to keep workers in the labor market longer. However, there is now some evidence that age stereotypes appear to be shifting, with workers now being considered as “old” at higher ages, contributing to their ability to stay in the labor market longer (Hofäcker et al. 2015). Because of ageism against older workers, underinvestment in their knowledge and skills, and their higher wages due to the inclusion of seniority in wage setting, as well as the availability of early retirement schemes, older workers are among those first in line to be laid off in case of economic restructuring. This makes older workers’ employment dependent on economic cycles and leaves them especially vulnerable in times of economic crisis (Ebbinghaus and Hofäcker 2013). From a push perspective, retirement would not have occurred if individuals had not been subject to such external circumstances putting pressure on them to leave the labor market. Hence, factors contributing to preventing older workers from being pushed out of the labor market include among others investments in age-management measurements such as education and training, efforts to make work less strenuous, and legislation against age discrimination. These policies and interventions allow individuals to maintain their capacity to work and their status as a worker until later in life. Therefore, the opposite of push has been conceptualized as maintain (Hofäcker and Radl 2016).
Maintenance of Standard of Living
Pull factors follow an economic rational choice logic in which individuals leave the labor market if a replacement income is available that is sufficient to sustain their desired standard of living. Hence, individuals retire if the difference in income between working and not working is unsubstantial. Pull-retirement is therefore usually linked to welfare state provisions such as pension and early retirement schemes (Blöndal and Scarpetta 1999; Ebbinghaus and Hofäcker 2013; Gruber and Wise 2002), though unemployment benefits can also contribute to individuals being pulled out of the labor market as they can offer a bridge between being made redundant and reaching the eligibility age for early retirement or pension benefits (Kyyrä and Ollikainen 2008). The typical policy response has been to increase eligibility ages for early retirement and old-age pension benefits, rolling back early retirement schemes and making these schemes less generous (OECD 2012). In addition, the increasing importance of occupational pensions – and in particular of defined contribution schemes – may contribute to delaying retirement since, unlike most state pensions, benefits tend to be more generous the later they are taken up, setting an incentive for individuals to postpone take-up (Ebbinghaus and Hofäcker 2013). However, the result of such pull-inspired policies to extend working lives is that individuals simply cannot afford to retire even if they would want to, effectively making them stuck in the labor market (Jensen and Øverbye 2013). Moreover, pull-retirement presupposes a certain level of knowledge about the pension system and pension entitlements, an assumption that does not apply to everyone and is particularly problematic for individuals with lower socioeconomic status (Holman et al. 2018).
More recently, there has been an increasing focus on the “softer” side of retirement, linking labor market exit with norms, preferences, and identities. Borne in a critique of the economic approach to retirement (pull), in which work is perceived solely as an instrumental activity to earn an income, sociologists have pointed out the intrinsic value of work in terms of giving people an identity and a sense of purpose in life (Radl 2013). From this perspective, individuals remain in employment because they like their work and it gives them a sense of purpose. This has been conceptualized as retain (Hofäcker et al. 2015) or stay (Jensen and Øverbye 2013). Retirement, on the other hand, occurs when individuals redefine who they are, pursue a new goal in life, or take up a new role. Individuals leap out of the labor market into a new role, a transition described as jump (Jensen 2005). Such transitions include retiring in order to take up a more active role as grandparent and spending more time with the family, or taking up a new role in volunteering (Fasbender et al. 2016). This is related to the concept of retirement adjustment found in the psychological literature, referring to the extent to which individuals have a plan as to “what to retire to” and can live up to these expectations (Wang and Shultz 2010). Whereas staying in the labor market is generally perceived as a positive choice, the social aspect of retirement can also produce negative incentives to do so. Hofäcker et al. (2015), for instance, point to the fear of social isolation as a reason for individuals to choose not to retire, conceptualized as repel. Indeed, the social dimension also plays a role in delaying retirement, as individuals increasingly prefer to retire at later ages (Hess 2017). This is partially driven by increases in state pension ages, as the pension age can act as a “signal” telling people it is time to reorient themselves, or that it is now socially accepted to leave the labor market (De Tavernier and Roots 2015; Hess 2017, 2018).
A Dynamic Retirement Model
Even though these different concepts refer to different types of transitions, they are connected to one another. Individuals’ retirement preferences, employers’ views of older workers, and early retirement policies refer to three different types of retirement (jump, push, and pull, respectively), yet they are all rooted in more widely shared social norms about the role of older people in society, making retirement firmly embedded in the life course (Phillipson 2004). In this sense, one could talk about an early exit or retirement culture within a country or within certain social groups (Guillemard 2003; Radl 2013). Regarding the latter, moreover, it should be stressed that there are substantial social inequalities in terms of retirement. Not only do people in lower socioeconomic positions have lower life expectancy, and crucially, disability-free life expectancy (Unger and Schulze 2013), they are also less likely to be in control over their own retirement transition – meaning that they more often experience being pushed out of the labor market (König et al. 2018).
Forms of Employment in Retirement Transition
Delaying retirement does not necessarily have to happen by continuing to work in the same full-time job. There is an increasing interest among scholars regarding nonstandard forms of employment in later life and surrounding the retirement transition. Instead of thinking about retirement as a cliff edge – either being in full-time employment or receiving an old-age pension – the transition is increasingly approached as a continuum between both poles, with flexible and highly individualized work arrangements. It makes sense to think about retirement as moving along a continuum rather than as a binary transition, with such nonstandard forms of employment typically being motivated by the joy or meaning working can give, though it could also be the consequence of financial need (Dingemans and Henkens 2014) – again reflecting both dimensions presented in Fig. 2. A series of concepts have been introduced in order to describe such forms of employment, though so far the literature remains fragmented, leading to calls for conceptual clarity and agreement in the field (Beehr and Bennett 2015). Whereas some of those notions mainly focus on the time component of employment, e.g., gradual, flexible, or partial retirement, others have focused on job content. The notion of bridge employment, for instance, refers to a change in the type of work performed in the late career. It depicts retirement as a gradual transition, though shows that this transition does not have to be a linear one from full-time employment to nonemployment, and can also include changes in types of work (Wang and Shultz 2010). Postretirement employment (Fasbender et al. 2016) and work after retirement (Eurofound 2012) are used to refer to paid work of any type or intensity done after reaching state pension age. Finally, the terms “reverse retirement” and “unretirement” have been coined to refer to older individuals returning to the labor market after a longer period of absence (McDonald 1997).
The increasing popularity of postretirement and bridge employment (Beehr and Bennett 2015; Dingemans and Henkens 2014) might be related to a shift in older workers’ preferences regarding when to retire. Hess (2017) shows that the preferred retirement age has increased in Europe, although the increase is stronger for people with a higher socioeconomic position. When comparing the preferred retirement age to the planned retirement age, data show that most older workers would like to retire earlier than they expect to do so, and the gap is particularly large for those with low qualifications and income (Hess 2018). One could assume that the policy shift towards delaying retirement has decreased their agency in the retirement transition (Hofäcker and Naumann 2015). However, the literature is inconclusive about whether bridge employment facilitates extending working lives (e.g., Been and van Vliet 2017) or whether it allows individuals to retire earlier (e.g., Hess et al. 2018).
Examples of Application
In terms of the financial sustainability of the pension system, this can be perceived as a very positive development. However, a rather different picture emerges when looking into social inequalities in delaying retirement. Hofäcker and Naumann (2015) find that in particular the lowest and the highest educated have extended their working lives throughout this period. Whereas they attribute this finding among the lowest educated particularly to an increased financial need to work longer due to the elimination of early retirement pathways, delaying retirement among the highest educated would be more voluntary in character, as they also prefer to retire later (see also Hess 2018).
Future Directions of Research
Retirement is a very active area of research with many unanswered questions, and the mechanisms of retirement are not yet fully understood. There are several directions in which future research could go. The concept of understanding retirement as a process rather than a binary transition should be explored more. This includes studies on bridge-employment and its effect on retirement timing, and working while receiving pensions. Second, until now much retirement research has focused on European and North-American countries, although some of the oldest and fasting ageing countries are in Asia. Thus, international and comparative retirement research should be strengthened. Further, socioeconomic and gender differences should be explored more when investigating retirement transitions. Female employment rates are rising and at the same time women still do the bulk of domestic work and informal care. Thus, women retire differently than men, yet comparatively little is still known about such gender differences. Also socioeconomic differences in retirement are not fully understood, in particular given the complex interplay of physical job demands, job content and pension build-up. Answering these questions will require a stronger focus on the life course in retirement research, situating retirement as a transition out of the labor market within the wider life course. In sum, there is a relatively good understanding of why individuals retire or continue working, but much less is known about which reasons for (not) retiring are relevant for whom, and about the individual heterogeneity of retirement trajectories.
Since the start of the new millennium, the average age at which individuals exit the labor market has increased across Europe. The delaying of retirement can be achieved through three mechanisms. First, it has to be possible for the individual to work longer, meaning that the individual should have the opportunity (economic circumstances; discrimination) and the physical and mental capability (health) to do so. Hence, improvements in economic circumstances, health and societal perceptions of older workers can contribute to people remaining in employment longer into older age. Second, working longer can be facilitated by rolling back early retirement schemes and increasing retirement ages, making it impossible for individuals without sufficient savings of their own to retire earlier. And third, as individuals derive meaning from and identify more strongly with working in general or the work they do specifically, they are more likely to extend their working lives. As a result, employers should be mindful of these developments and not only strive to create an age-appropriate and inclusive work environment, but also take the various discussed forms of employment into account. New career models that are tailored to the needs of an ageing workforce need to be developed and implemented.
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