In Canada, until 2008, “retirement” came at age 65. We don’t mean that 65 was the default, or age at which it was assumed a person would retire – we literally mean that once you hit 65, you could legally be forced to give up working.
Nearly a decade and a half later, and the proportion of people in the Great White North working past 65 is at least one in four. South of the border, the proportion is even higher: almost half of Americans aged between 60 and 75 plan to work part-time after retirement, and nearly a third say they will retire either past the age of 70 or not at all.
It’s easy to see this rise in the number of elderly employees as a reflection of the modern dystopia we find ourselves in in 2022 – and there is some logic to that: the last 20 years have seen three separate recessions and a global pandemic, all of which have impacted seniors’ financial security. But equally, there are some justifications for raising the age of retirement that sound downright idyllic: people are healthier than they used to be, living longer than they used to, and 65 – well, it just doesn’t seem that old anymore.
“With longer life expectancy, it only makes sense to have the age marker for old age set higher,” wrote Thomas Klassen, a professor in York University’s School of Public Policy and Administration, in a recent essay for The Conversation. “The latest Canadian census finds there are more than 9,000 centenarians in Canada, mostly women, each of whom has been defined as old for nearly a third of their lives.”
But here’s the question: who had it better? Our parents and grandparents, living off their pensions from the moment they hit 65? Or us, and our children, for whom “retirement” may seem about as realistic a prospect as “owning a house”?
Well, the good news is that yes, science has tackled this question. The bad news? The results couldn’t be more conflicting.
Should you retire early?
“Retir[ing] early… could lengthen your life,” wrote Austin Frakt, a professor with the Department of Health Law, Policy and Management at the Boston University’s School of Public Health and Principal Research Scientist with the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in a 2018 post for health services research blog The Incidental Economist.
Frakt was writing in the wake of a Dutch study which had linked early retirement to a longer lifespan: researchers found that the men in the study who had retired between the ages of 55 and 65 had a risk of dying over the next five years that was 2.6 percentage points lower than their still-employed compatriots.
And these results are far from isolated. A 2014 US study found that taking seven years’ extra retirement is comparable to a one-fifth reduction in risk of serious disease like diabetes or heart conditions; a 2018 study out of Israel linked working past typical retirement age to poorer health outcomes; and according to a 2022 pan-European analysis, “retiring both at the normal and early retirement eligibility ages significantly improves all the health aspects… consider[ed].”
Seems pretty cut-and-dry, right? Here’s the thing, though – multiple other studies are out there which have concluded the exact opposite.
Should you retire late?
“[We] found that retiring one year later was associated with a nine percent lower mortality risk,” said Chenkai Wu, lead author of a 2016 study into the link between retirement and longevity and then-PhD-student in public health at Oregon State University, in an interview with Harvard Business Review.
“[We controlled for] the typical variables – gender, ethnicity, age, education, marital status, and wealth,” he explained. “And we took into account more-detailed health- or lifestyle-related variables, like consumption of cigarettes and alcohol, exercise, body mass index, self-reported health ratings, and disabilities. Then we evaluated a number of chronic conditions, like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. We still found that retirement age was related to mortality.”
And again, the study is not alone: that conclusion – that working past normal retirement age could be beneficial for our health – is echoed in a 2020 study out of Amsterdam, while neurologist Daniel Levitin suggests the best option is to not retire at all.
“Even if you’re physically impaired, it’s best to keep working, either in a job or as a volunteer,” he wrote in his 2020 book Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of our Lives. “Too much time spent with no purpose is associated with unhappiness. Stay busy! But not with busy-work or trivial pursuits, but with meaningful activities.”
And it’s certainly true that retirement isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Something like one in four people go back to work after initially retiring – something economists have labeled “unretiring” – with the majority of those seemingly not driven by financial need. Businesses, too, can benefit from a workforce that refuses to age out of employment, with multigenerational teams being more productive, making fewer mistakes, and sharing more positive feedback among team members.
When should you retire?
So should we being retiring early, or late? The real answer is that it depends. “A lot of people have framed [our study] as ‘retire early, die early; or retire late, die late,’” Wu said. “But that’s not actually the main message we want to convey. What we really want people to think about is ‘What does work represent?’”
There isn’t a magic age at which retirement will make you live longer, make you happy and healthy, give you clear skin and rebalance your chakras – it all comes down to what you do with your newly-free schedule.
“Our theory is that a later retirement may actually delay when your physical and cognitive functioning starts to decline, because work keeps your mind and body active,” Wu said. “If you stay active and socially engaged, it helps maintain your cognitive and physical abilities.”
And on the other side of the debate, the caveats are the same. “Teasing out the causal effect of retirement on health isn’t straightforward,” Frakt cautioned. “After all, some people retire precisely because they are in declining health. Without careful analysis, you might conclude that retirement causes poor health and an earlier death.”
But when we dig down into the activities of healthy retirees, we start to see why leaving work early might benefit your lifespan. “Physical activity is associated with prevention of disease and reduced mortality in older people. Lack of time, perhaps due to work, is a chief reason many adults don’t exercise,” Frakt explained. “Retirees are more likely to exercise, and those who do are better off for it. One study found retirees get more sleep and spend more time doing household work and gardening – both of which are more active than a desk job.”
So what’s the perfect age to retire? Whenever you feel like it, assuming you’re able. Maybe that’s just five years after you start work; maybe, like Japanese physician Shigeaki Hinohara, who worked 18 hours a day until his death at age 105, it’s never. It just comes down to one question: are you going to be healthier, happier, and more socially engaged in work? Or out of it?
“[It’s] really not about the work or retirement age per se,” said Wu. “If you can find something that brings you the same benefits work does, that’s what’s important.”
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