Spring 2015

Labor-Force Participation, Policies & Practices in an Aging America: Adaptation Essential for a Healthy & Resilient Population

Authors
Lisa F. Berkman, Axel Boersch-Supan, and Mauricio Avendano
Abstract

Population aging in the United States poses challenges to societal institutions while simultaneously creating opportunities to build a more resilient, successful, and cohesive society. Work organization and labor-force participation are central to both the opportunities and challenges posed by our aging society. We argue that expectations about old age have not sufficiently adapted to the reality of aging today. Our institutions need more adaptation in order to successfully face the consequences of demographic change. Although this adaptation needs to focus especially on work patterns among the “younger elderly,” our society has to change its general attitudes toward work organization and labor-force participation, which will have implications for education and health care. We also show that work’s beneficial effects on well-being in older ages are often neglected, while the idea that older workers displace younger workers is a misconception emerging from the “lump-of-labor” fallacy. We conclude, therefore, that working at older ages can lead to better quality of life for older people and to a more productive and resilient society overall.

LISA F. BERKMAN is the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy and of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. She is the author or editor of numerous books and publications, including Social Epidemiology (second edition; edited with Ichiro Kawachi and Maria Glymour, 2014), Neighborhoods and Health (edited with Ichiro Kawachi, 2003), and Health and Ways of Living (with Lester Breslow, 1983).

AXEL BOERSCH-SUPAN is the Director of the Munich Center for the Economics of Aging at the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy. He has written numerous books and his articles have appeared in such journals as American Economic Review, Journal of Econometrics, Journal of Public Economics, and International Journal of Epidemiology.

MAURICIO AVENDANO is Principal Research Fellow and Deputy Director of LSE Health at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Adjunct Associate Professor at Harvard University. His research has been published in such journals as American Journal of Epidemiology, Annual Review of Public Health, and Preventive Medicine.

Population aging in the United States, as in most countries around the world, poses many challenges to our major private, public, and societal institutions. At the same time, however, it creates great opportunities for building a more resilient, successful, and cohesive society. For several reasons, work organization and labor-force participation are central to both opportunities and challenges posed by an aging population. First, for all but a very few, working remains the main source of income for consumption and for savings. Work also has an anchoring function in society, bringing multiple benefits to our physical, social, and emotional well-being. Given the continuing increase in life expectancy in aging societies, it is more necessary than ever before to revisit the role of work in older ages and the opportunities that longer working lives can bring to aging societies. We argue in this essay that individual expectations about old age have not sufficiently adjusted to the new reality of an aging society. Reflecting this, our private, public, and societal institutions suffer from the same disconnect and now need to adapt considerably to face the challenges and embrace the opportunities of demographic change. Although this adaptation must focus especially on work patterns among the “younger elderly,” our entire society has to adapt its attitudes toward work organization and labor-force participation, and in the process rethink its education and health care policies and expectations. .  .  .

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