Project Director: Nancy L. Marshall, Ed.D.
Funder: National Institute on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
This project proposes to advance scientific knowledge regarding the relationship between health and work, and both the positive and negative conditions within a workplace. This study asks how important employment really is toward productivity and health in an older workers' life.
There are over 14 million older workers, age 55 and older, in the United States (Commonwealth Fund, 1993). The number and proportion of older workers in the workforce is growing as the “baby-boom” generation ages (Salthouse & Maurer, 1996; Farr, Tesluk, & Klein, 1998). Many of today’s aging baby boomers will remain in the labor force longer than members of recent cohorts. This is due to a variety of individual and societal factors such as increased longevity, financial concerns, societal concerns about the economic costs of early retirement, a shortage of younger workers, and the beginning of disincentives towards early retirement in public and private retirement plans (Schooler, Caplan, & Oates, 1998). Even when workers retire, retirement does not always signal the end of employment. Various studies (Beck, 1986) suggest that approximately one-third of older workers become re-employed post-retirement -- this is especially likely among workers with a college degree and among women who have been intermittently employed prior to ‘retirement’ (Han & Moen, 1998). All of these factors combine to create labor force participation rates among older workers that are dramatically different from those of 30 years ago.
This increase in older workers has created a pressing need for a better understanding of older workers, the characteristics of their employment, and the nature and magnitudes of the health risks they face. Knowledge gained can help inform policies and practices designed to improve working conditions, productivity and wellbeing among older workers.
This study used secondary analysis of a data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS); the analysis sample consisted of 2,983 individuals who were between the ages of 50 and 70 in 1996, were employed in both 1996 and 1998. We set out to explore the links between substantive complexity and health in a sample of almost 3,000 older workers. We found that this cohort of older workers continues to be heavily involved in the labor market, with the vast majority 80% employed 30 or more hours per week in 1996, when they were between 50 and 70 years old. Overall, these older workers are in good or excellent health, with only 9% rating their health as fair or poor. Yet over half of the women and over a third of the men reported some health-related limitations to their activities of daily living.
About a third of this sample of employed older adults was classified as retired, on the basis of their own self-definition or the receipt of pension income. We found few health differences between retired older workers and those who were not retired. However, retired older workers were more likely to be employed part-time than were those who were not retired.
In our structural equation models, we found interesting associations between substantive complexity and health. As expected, respondents with more substantively complex occupations also reported more positive changes over time in their health on all measures. Given that occupations that are substantively complex are those that require complex problem-solving and critical thinking, these findings suggest that such occupations help to maintain memory and working memory. Interestingly, older workers in more substantively complex occupations also show slower declines in activities of daily living. It is possible that this relationship may be mediated by cognitive functioning, such that substantive complexity protects cognitive functioning which is associated with ADLs. However, given that the ADL measure used here consists primarily of gross motor items, such as walking, kneeling and reaching, and these activities are less strongly associated with levels of cognitive functioning (Ofstedal et al, 2002); it is equally plausible that some third variable not included in the model explains this association, such as social class.
We also examined the role of gender in these models of substantive complexity and health in this cohort of women and men born between 1931 and 1941, who reached adulthood in the 1950’s. However, we found that 80% of employed women in this cohort were employed full-time, compared to 90% of employed men. We also did not find gender differences in the relation between levels of substantive complexity and changes in health. Among older workers in this cohort, both men and women benefit from substantively complex occupations.
However, we did find differences in the models for older workers who were retired compared to those who were not. We found that, among not retired workers, greater substantive complexity is associated with relatively less decline in memory; substantive complexity appears to have little if any effect on memory among retired workers. However, substantively complex work of both retired workers and not retired workers was significantly associated with more positive changes over time in working memory and ADL scores.
We also tested for reciprocal effects between substantive complexity and health. We found no significant relations between health in 1996 and change over time in substantive complexity in the main models, and only two significant out of 12 tested relationships in the group analyses (one for not retired workers and one for men), lending support for the thesis that the relationship between substantive complexity and health is largely in the direction of substantive complexity contributing to changes in health, rather than the reverse.
Overall, this study demonstrates the importance of longitudinal tests of the associations between working conditions and health, and of tests of reciprocity of effects. This study also contributes to our understanding of the characteristics of jobs that are particularly important to maintaining health and functioning among older workers.
Read the full report of this study.