The average age of retirement has been declining for several decades and now is at about age 62. Of course, not everyone intends to retire at that age. (Count me among those who do not.) One of the reasons I wrote 225 Best Jobs for Baby Boomers (JIST) was to suggest occupations that pre-retirement, career-changing Boomers might choose and then find so rewarding that they might postpone retirement.
However, sometimes plans to continue working do not materialize. Many older workers are forced to retire earlier than they expected. Given the current state of the economy, they may be laid off and have difficulty finding another job. Or they may have to quit because of declining health or the necessity of caring for a spouse whose health is in decline. On the other hand, some choose to retire earlier than expected for positive reasons. They may be offered a “golden parachute” by their employer. In some cases (although probably much less frequently now, given the state of the stock market), their investments may prosper better than expected and permit an earlier retirement.
Conversely, some older workers experience a different change of plans: they go on working longer than they expected to. Again, negative reasons often are to blame: insufficient or poorly performing investments; a health condition (or perhaps the condition of a spouse) that makes the worker need to continue receiving medical-benefit coverage from an employer; or a spouse’s loss of a job. Some workers, however, have positive reasons to extend their careers beyond their expected retirement age, such as unanticipated employment opportunities or improved work conditions.
An interesting new research study has found that both kinds of changed plans–both accelerating and postponing retirement–are associated with depression among older workers. The researchers–Tracy A. Falba, William T. Gallo, and Jody L. Sindelardata–used data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) conducted at the University of Michigan. This study interviews a group of older Americans every two years and therefore gathers data on (among other things) the subjects’ retirement plans, the fulfillment or thwarting of those plans, and the subjects’ mental health. The researchers found these increases in depression even when earlier depressive symptoms were evident and even when controlling for sociodemographic factors.
The researchers did not attempt to determine a reason why changes in retirement timing cause depression, but other researchers have suggested some. For example, leaving the workforce earlier than planned can reduce income, cut the worker off from a social network, and leave the worker with diminished feelings of self-worth. On the other hand, workers who are forced to postpone planned retirement may feel stressed.
The researchers note that the current economic crisis is probably causing many sexagenarian workers to postpone retirement and therefore is increasing the number of depressed people in the workforce, which in turn is likely to affect workplace productivity. Obviously, the effects of an increase in the ranks of unintended retirees would be felt less in the workplace than in the home, where it would likely have deleterious social repercussions associated with depression, such as substance abuse and domestic violence.
My guess is that unforeseen change in one’s career plans at any stage of life is likely to increase depression. This is why, in my writing about careers, I try to emphasize flexibility and resilience.