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Linking Our Lives



What can the Census tell us about extended working lives?

By Chris A Garrington, on 19 October 2021

by Fran Abrams

Across the developed world, populations are ageing and policy makers are wondering how to keep people in work for longer. But at the same time, greater numbers of older people are claiming sickness benefits. So what can the Census tell us about the true picture, and about the types of policy interventions that might help? 

Heated debate has raged for years around the issue of disability and sickness benefits. More people are claiming them – and a key response from the UK Government has been the use of ‘Nudge’ techniques to encourage the reluctant to return to work.

But a range of studies which use data from the ONS Longitudinal Study suggest popular assumptions on the topic may be flawed.

One such study challenges the assumption that the number of people claiming sickness benefits is growing because they are becoming available to people whose conditions are less serious: that claiming has become easier and that those with milder illnesses are doing so.

Bola Akinwale from Public Health England and colleagues from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at University College London compared Census data from 1971 to 2001. 

There had been big changes in the labour market positions of 60-64 year-old men, they found:

  • Working – 78.4 percent v 47.5 percent
  • Retired – 7.2 percent v 24.7 percent
  • Permanently sick – 9 percent v 19.7 percent

The proportion of permanently sick men had doubled in 30 years, but the trend was even more striking among women:  12.4 percent of 55-59 year-old women described themselves as permanently sick in 2001 compared with 3.4 percent in 1971.

And yet in the last 30 years of the 20th century, life expectancy for those aged 65 increased more than it did in the previous 70 years, and the risk of dying just before State Pension Age decreased substantially – by more than 60 percent for men and by more than 50 percent for women. This increase in life expectancy benefited the permanently sick as much as those in work, with both  living longer than their counterparts 30 years previously.

Are sick people less sick nowadays?

 But the researchers found that statistic did not tell the whole story: yes, people were living longer and healthier lives by the turn of the century. But if the ‘permanently sick’ were in fact less sick than in the previous generation, the gap between their chances of dying prematurely and that of someone in work would have got smaller over the 30-year period. It didn’t.

Permanently sick men aged 65-69 were three times more likely to die prematurely than their working peers in 2001 – an increase on the 1971 figure. For women, the figure was between four and five times higher.

The  life expectancy of the permanently sick increased in line with others’ as medical and social advances were made. But their likelihood of dying when compared to working people if anything, increased slightly.

So, Census data confirms the United Kingdom has an ageing population that contains more people with long-term and life-limiting illnesses. It also gives us a richer picture of who those people are, and where they live.

Dr Emily Murray and colleagues* used census data to look at who lives longest after leaving work, and they found wide disparities in health and life expectancy between different social classes. 

They compared data on people who were aged 50-75 at the time of the 2001 census and who had stopped work by 2011 – the average age of stopping was 58 for women and 60.2 for men. 

The study showed those in professional occupations could expect to live and enjoy good health for longer than those in manual jobs: the average 50 year-old man in a professional job could expect 25 years of good health, while a man in a manual occupation could expect only 18: a seven-year difference. And that explains why lower social class groups are more likely to find themselves on disability benefit.

Among the sample group of 50-75 year-olds from 2001,  14.6 per cent of the women and 25.1 per cent of the men died within 10 years. For both genders, those in lower social classes tended to die younger – professional women lived two years longer than unskilled women, and professional men three years longer than unskilled men.

But despite these longevity gaps, those from lower social groups faced more years between leaving work and being able to draw their state pensions – because they left work earlier.

The researchers estimated that if two women were 65 in 2001, the woman who had worked in an unskilled occupation would live five years longer after leaving work than the professional woman with good health – because the unskilled woman would have left at a younger age. Two men in the same circumstances would live on average 25.0 and 19.5 years from stopping work to death.

Poor health

The most likely explanation, they said, is that poor health has a greater impact on the ability of manual workers to continue working than it does on non-manual workers.

There is a clear message for policymakers: a uniform state pension age disproportionately affects the poorest because they must wait longer between stopping work and qualifying for their state pension, at a time when they are likely to be in poor health: over half of women and two-fifths of men  fall out of the labour market before state pension age.

A two-year earlier pension age may be more appropriate for individuals who work in manual occupations, the researchers say, in order to improve the financial security and health of the most vulnerable in society. Such occupation-specific pensions already exist in some other countries, along with pensions based on duration of employment – people in manual occupations generally start work earlier so they work more years if they retire at same time. The issue was raised in the Cridland review on the state pension age.

A third paper addresses Government responses to these issues, which have tended to focus on behavioural techniques for encouraging older people to stay in work. It asks whether official publications, which have suggested there may be resistance to continuing in work among some groups, are correct in their assumptions.

Census data

Nicola Shelton and colleagues* used census data to look at what happened in 2011 to adults aged between 40 and 49 in 2001 and found significant regional differences: men in the North East were significantly less likely to extend their working lives than others, for instance, while women in all regions apart from London and Wales were significantly more likely to stay in work than those in the North East.

But further analysis showed that for men at least, other social factors could explain these differences. Put bluntly, men in the North East leave work earlier because they tend to have fewer qualifications and less favourable employment status – both of which are associated with shortened working lives.

For women, some additional factors affected the likelihood of staying in work. Those in lower-skilled jobs were less likely still to be in work by 2011, but those working for larger employers, for long hours or away from home were also more likely to have left.

Working conditions

So, what can governments do? Given a good work environment, choosing to remain in work may have positive benefits such as maintaining good health and functioning and providing a sense of purpose- so working conditions are important, the researchers suggest.

The biggest single factor in determining whether workers stay on for longer is prior employment – and that is not likely to be changed by behavioural approaches such as the ‘nudge’ theory of behavioural economics, which is popular with policy makers, they say.

Policies that do not address issues such as low levels of education and high levels of unskilled employment can only be partially successful in enabling people to work for longer. Indeed, some groups who may have the most financial need to remain in work are most likely to leave earlier. This is particularly an issue for women.

Policies that increase skills and education in later life, rather than simply targeting those ‘receptive’ to extended working, will be more likely to make a difference, they conclude.

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