The Impact of Work on the Psychological Health and Well-Being of Older Americans1

By James, Jacquelyn Boone; Spiro, Avron, III | Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Work on the Psychological Health and Well-Being of Older Americans1


James, Jacquelyn Boone, Spiro, Avron, III, Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics


Even though Laslett (1991) maintained that the Third Age arrived at the juncture of relinquishing work commitments and diminishing parental demands, he defined it as a time for personal fulfillment. He saw it as the era of self-realization, when the "apogee of life" might be achieved. He thought that this opportunity was largely concomitant with retirement and the exit from the workplace, but did recognize that it could happen at any age.

Let it be repeated that the coming of the Third Age from the individual point of view is a personal, not a biological age, and above all it is a matter of choice. . . . Professional people, for one thing, do for a livelihood what they might wish to do for themselves, for their own satisfaction, even for pleasure. Moreover, because they can dispose of their time to such a much greater extent, they can develop their interests and plan their satisfaction in ways that others cannot, even large earning, big spending, business people ... for them it might be said that the Second Age is generally interfused with the Third Age (Laslett, 1991, pp. 151-152).

Even so, Laslett asserted that continued work, although important as a choice for older adults, represents a postponing of the Third Age and the realization of the "crown of life."

Current generations of midlife adults, however, appear to be viewing retirement with new lenses. As Vaillant points out (in Trafford, 2004), a "career is not just a job but your defining purpose, the core of your being" (p. 14). He said it can be a combination of work and family, the place where you find contentment, compensation, competence, and commitment. A study by American Association of Retired Persons (AARP; 2004) showed that nearly 70% of workers over 45 say they plan to work in their retirement years. According to Firman, president of the National Council on the Aging, the notion of retirement is fading away. In a survey by the Council of over 300 older Americans, more than 40% of those aged 65-74 years reported that they were working. Nearly 20% said that they had not officially retired. Another 23% said they had retired but were still in the workforce.

We are led to wonder whether we are in a new era, in which work might be another pathway to the kind of well-being that Laslett describes, or whether continued work delays the heightened well-being that the theory predicts. Few normative guidelines exist for current generations of retirees or their peers who move into the conventional retirement years but continue working (Ryff & Marshall, 1999). The purpose of this chapter then is to explore the impact of continued employment for older men and women in terms of their psychological well-being over time.

These questions as to the pathways to a psychologically healthy and contented retirement are made more salient by recent research indicating that traditional sources of retirement income will not be sufficient to maintain an adequate level of retirement income for many low- or middle-income individuals (Brown, Jackson & Faison, this volume; Burtless & Quinn, 2002; Grafova & Stafford, this volume; Munnell, 2003). Thus, Munnell (2003) and others have suggested that the most effective way to maintain living standards in retirement is for older Americans to remain in the labor force longer. Quinn (2002) in fact shows that the trend toward early retirement has been reversed in recent years. But is continued work good for older adults in terms of their mental health?

Unfortunately, the nonmonetary costs and benefits of work at older ages have been neglected by a research agenda that focuses on the economic aspects of retirement. For young and middle-aged adults, the link between work and psychological health and well-being is well documented. Work remains, as Havighurst (1954) noted long ago, a source of income (which is related to psychological well-being), a means of structuring the day (making a day worthwhile), a source of personal status and identity, a context for social interaction, and a pathway to self-efficacy or personal accomplishment (cited in Moen, 2003; see also, Juster, 1998; Liem & Liem, 2006; Newman, 1999.

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