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Work/Life Balance, Job Satisfaction and Retirement

What two new studies say about older workers and money

By Kerry Hannon

As workers reach their 50s and 60s, they often grapple with two big issues: work/life balance and job satisfaction. Two new studies, presented at the 2017 Retirement Research Consortium Meeting I recently attended in Washington, D.C., offer some fascinating insights on them.

Older Workers
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When Work/Life Balance Issues Are Too Much

In their paper, Work-Life Balance and Labor Force Attachment at Older Ages, economists Marco Angrisani and Erik Meijer of the University of Southern California and Maria Casanova of California State University, Fullerton, looked into when work/life balance issues cause people age 51 to 79 to stop, or cut back on, working.

The researchers found a strong correlation for stepping out of the workforce by women working full-time and part-time when their spouse had a health shock. (The Employee Benefit Research Institute’s 2017 Retirement Confidence Survey noted that 14 percent of people who retired earlier than planned cited having to care for a spouse or another family member.)

“When the spouse gets sick, that means you may want to reprioritize. It makes it harder to hang on to that job. Life is interfering with work,” Matthew Rutledge, a research economist at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, told attendees following the paper’s presentation.

Men, however, did not follow the same pattern when their wives had health shocks, according to the researchers. I suspect that’s because women tend to take on caregiving roles and men are apt to outsource.

When it concerns a spousal health status, “women adjust more,” Rutledge observed. That’s particularly true when they get to retirement age.

“Women are bearing a lot of the responsibility when life intervenes around retirement,” said Rutledge. “They are more sensitive to work-life balance and the decision to transition to part-time work or retire.”

A related finding from this report: A lack of work/life balance is “more likely to induce females than males to actually retire.”

The researchers also discovered that men whose spouse is working are 3 to 4 percentage points less likely to retire and significantly more likely to keep working part-time. By contrast, women’s decision to keep working was less influenced by whether their spouse was still employed.

One strong incentive older women have for staying on the job full-time, the economists noted, employer-provided health insurance. This was described as “a critical pull factor” for women.

Being covered by an employer’s health plan increased women’s probability of continuing to work full-time by 8.5 percentage points and decreased the chance of working part-time (presumably without health benefits) by 5.7 percentage points and the chance of retiring by 2.7 percentage points.

Key Job Factors for Older Workers

The second paper that caught my attention studied a colossal stumbling block for continuing to work at older ages: a palpable frustration with pay.

Often, it not only takes workers over 50 longer to land a job than younger people, but the jobs they’re offered tend to be for less pay than they made in their previous positions. That stings.


Employers tend to push back on this concern saying that older workers have unrealistic pay expectations or are “overqualified.”

But what if you really thought about how much pay you’d be willing to accept for more appealing working conditions than you now have? That’s where the findings of the research report, The Value of Working Conditions in the United States, come into play. The researchers surveyed 1,818 individuals on their job preferences.

“We focused on how important are working conditions to people in thinking about the jobs they want to do and whether or not they want to continue working,” said Kathleen J. Mullen, a senior economist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and one of the paper’s five authors. The other: four: Nicole Maestas, of Harvard University’s Medical School; Till von Wachter, of University of California, Los Angeles and RAND’s David Powell and Jeffrey B. Wenger.

Aside from pay and benefits, some older workers desire other elements of job satisfaction such as work flexibility, meaningful work, opportunities to gain transferable skills and for advancement and a supportive work environment, the researchers noted. Staying on the job longer depends on these types of job attributes that transcend money, the researchers concluded.

For example, a switch from a physically demanding job to one requiring only moderate physical activity is equivalent to a 20 percent wage increase, overall, according to the researchers. But switching from a job that involves mostly sitting to one requiring heavy physical activity is the equivalent of a 24.1 percent wage decrease for people 62 and older.

And schedule flexibility is the equivalent of a 9 percent wage increase, according to the report.

The researchers’ bottom line: “Individuals may ‘purchase’ better job amenities by accepting jobs with lower wages that have their desired characteristics.”

When amenities like flexible schedules are included, people age 50 and over earn 12 percent more than their prime-age counterparts (ages 35-49), according to this new research — an interesting way to spin the wage angst issue for older workers.

My Advice for People Hoping to Keep Working

My final thoughts on the two papers: If you’re over 50 and want to extend your working years, balance potential pay vs. having some autonomy and a more relaxed schedule. Also, look for educational and professional development training opportunities, so you’ll have the right skills to let you bargain for more job satisfaction.

Working beyond your mid-60s can allow you to delay claiming Social Security benefits; they’ll grow roughly 8 percent annually until you reach 70. Continuing to work could also let you keep funding your employer’s retirement account and earn money on it. Best of all, it can keep you healthier mentally and physically, provide the social benefits of human interaction and make you feel relevant.

Photogtaph of Kerry Hannon
Kerry Hannon is the author of Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home. She has covered personal finance, retirement and careers for The New York Times, Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today, among others. She is the author of more than a dozen books including Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life, Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women and What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond. Her website is Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon. Read More
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