A European research project
In 2013 the European Commission launched the Joint Programming Initiative (JPI) More Years, Better Lives (MYBL) – the potential and challenges of demographic change. In this framework an European Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) was elaborated which identifies research gaps, defines implementation and formulates recommendations to stakeholders. A perfect example of cross-national and interdisciplinary research on a European scale!
Some ‘fast-track activities’ of the SRA have already been launched. One of these was a study on ‘Understanding employment participation of older workers, creating a knowledge base for future labour market challenges’. The aim of this report is to present a review of research and an outline of research needs in the field of employment participation at higher working age. An interdisciplinary group of researchers from ten European countries (and Canada) analysed recent research evidence by topic and country. The project report, which was presented in Berlin, February 2015, presents their findings.
Increase in participation of older workers
Although differing in pace and magnitude, all European countries are witnessing increasing life expectancies and a shift from younger to older age groups. All countries display a clear upward trend towards higher participation rates of older workers. However, more adjustments to the new demographic realities remain important; the largest increases in the employment participation of older workers have to be implemented in those countries where the magnitude of the demographic challenge is large or very large, and where current participation rates are low (for example Austria, Belgium, Poland) or average (for example Canada, Germany, Netherlands).
Decisions about work and pensions
We should, however, not overlook that in many countries the past two decades have brought forward significant changes in retirement patterns and schemes. Retirement today is no clear-cut ‘one-off ‘ event, but is characterised by great diversity.
Many factors contribute to the complexity of retirement: Multilevel interacting influences of society, work and the individual and, not least, the heterogeneity of the older working population itself.
The framework of the JPI project was based on ten ‘domains’ that influence decisions about retirement and work. Following the domain structure, experts identified research needs across these domains. At the same time, scientists also wrote national reports for each participating country which explicitly referred to the domains, and drew conclusions about specific national research needs. In an overall assessment of the findings, similar conclusions for research are drawn surprisingly often. These research needs to advance research on the employment participation of older workers, fall into three priority areas, namely
Conceptual gap: the lack of a broad view
A broad view of retirement requires a conceptual framework, which locates retirement within the context of different determinants on micro, meso and macro level and allows for a life course perspective. However, most studies do not adopt a systems view and multi-factorial approach and thus may overlook the emerging theme of retirement fragmentation. This also relates to the frequent lack in specific longitudinal research approaches and the application of life course perspectives. Lastly, there is a poor coverage of important population subgroups like women, migrants or manual workers, who, in fact, should be at the centre of policy attention.
Closing cross-national gaps
The research on employment participation was found to be distributed very unevenly across the review countries. Across almost all domains, the countries with the highest research coverage are Norway and the Netherlands, followed by Canada and Finland. One reason for this unequal distribution of research is certainly that researchers in the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands benefit from easy access to register data.
Filling thematic gaps
The group recommends to close the many thematic gaps by adopting a differentiated view in retirement research and by considering: the role of health in the context of retirement; potential domestic and household factors (care responsibilities!); new work exposures such as the increased use of technology or higher flexibility in work settings; the role of older women in retirement; the relation between migration and retirement; the opportunities for organisational intervention, and the societal costs and gains of policy changes. The topics listed are urgent but by no means exhaustive.
Report on the Dutch situation
Swenneke van den Heuvel c.s (TNO, Delft) and Jaap Oude Mulders (University of Utrecht, School of Economics) were responsible for the Dutch national report. Here are some of their findings.
Research on the determinants of employment participation
In general, research on employment participation of older workers here is well advanced compared to other countries. Many research domains are covered well, many disciplines are involved and different research approaches have been adopted. Three cohort studies of ageing persons are available that contain data on health, work, lifestyle and social factors. Statistics Netherlands is able to provide registered data, which are very suitable for scientific analyses.
Moreover, it is possible for some studies to link survey data to registered data from Statistics Netherland. Research related to employment participation often focuses on ‘sustainable employability’. This widely supported topic leads to many initiatives and is attracting research funding.
Most available studies do not empirically analyse employment participation of older workers. Organisations employ significantly more older workers than ten years ago but are not necessarily more likely to recruit older workers.
Legislation and its implementation
Most major policy changes are evaluated in a systematic way, except the implementation of an age discrimination law. Research shows that policies were successfully implemented to discourage early retirement and largely disable alternative ways of early retirement either through unemployment benefits or disability insurance.
Several studies confirm that financial factors play a critical role in determining the employment participation of older workers, especially low-wage earners.
Some studies exist on the relation between education (or socio-economic status) and employment participation with mixed findings. No studies are available on the influence of gender, ethnicity, income, or profession.
Several studies link domestic factors to early retirement. Spouses are very important in the decision to retire.
Several cohort studies are available. Among older workers, psycho-social factors at work seem to have greater effect on employment participation than physical load. This might be due to a healthy worker effect: Those with health problems due to a high physical load already left the workforce at an earlier age.
Many studies are available on health and employment participation, but none on health-related behaviour. In general, good health is positively associated with employment participation. However, good health may also be an incentive for early retirement.
Appeal for an integral approach
Many research findings are derived from cohort studies. As a consequence, determinants are measured at a personal level and are based on the individual perspective. Data on the context are lacking or less reliable, the latter because workers are not the best source to derive this information from. Research in the field of employment participation would gain from a more integral approach, in which data from employers and employees are combined, ideally also including data on a macro-economic level.
What is more, the review sheds light on specific research gaps: No studies were found on the impact of age discrimination law on employment participation of older workers, nor studies on the influence of gender, ethnicity, income, or profession. No studies were found on the effects of health-related behaviour on employment participation. If they are available on this topic, these studies are not age-specific.