Employment and Aging: Using Large Scale Data To Ask, “Who Works?”

The so-called Great Recession has changed how Americans view work, and not just due to our 10% unemployment rate. Attacks on social security and pensions, the disappearing social safety net, and the need for many older adults to support younger family members (at a life stage when both had perhaps once expected that support would flow in the opposite direction) has delayed or ended retirement for many Americans. At the same time, job prospects for the long-term unemployed are sufficiently poor—which, as we recently discussed, particularly afflicts older adults—that many are forced into undesired, unfunded retirement.

In the recent article on employment and aging, we discussed why older adults struggle to find work, compared to younger cohorts. This may lead one to ask: what are the factors that lead older adults to search for new work? Clearly, unemployment, the loss of pensions, and the need to support spouses, children and grandchildren all lead individuals to take on new employment. Beyond individual circumstances, however, are there structural factors that influence who works? What can we learn about differences between communities, classes, ethnic groups, and regions in terms of which older adults seek out and take on work.

One attempt to answer these questions is an analysis of data from the NIH Health, Aging and Body Composition study (Rooks and Harris 2010). This analysis compared black and white women and men, aged 70 to 79 when the data was collected, along and controlling for education, income, resources such as assets and social support, and city (a Pittsburgh and a Memphis sample).  Among men, being black, living in Memphis compared to Pittsburgh, being of higher income, drinking alcohol, and high physical functioning were all predictive of working. In women, being black, being overweight, high physical functioning, and having a low number of chronic health conditions all predicted working status. Productive Aging theory and Political Economy of Aging theory were each partially to explain the findings, which will be expanded upon with future longitudinal research to see if health, functional, work and social declines differ among groups. This analysis opens up several interesting questions and opportunities for further investigation. How does health, access to resources, and behavior have different effects in different social groups? What are some possible explanations of regional, behavioral, and health differences?

Rooks, Ronica N and Harris, Tamara (2010). Who Works Among Older Black and White, Well-Functioning Adults in the HABC Study? Poster, 2010 GSA annual conference.

NIH Health ABC Study:


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