Teddy Roosevelt once said “the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Recent research suggests he may have been more right than he knew: Life’s “best prize” might actually extend life itself.
Our common perception is that retirement is a time when we can relax and take better care of ourselves after stressful careers. But what if work itself is beneficial to our health, as several recent studies suggest?
One of them, by Jennifer Montez of Harvard University and Anna Zajacova of the University of Wyoming, examined why the gap in life expectancy between highly educated and less-educated Americans has been growing so rapidly. They concluded that among these women “employment was, in and of itself, an important contributor.” The life expectancy of less-educated women was being shortened by their lower employment rates compared with those of highly educated women.
The researchers tried to test whether the problem was that less-educated people had worse health, and therefore couldn’t work. But they found that “the contribution of employment to diverging mortality across education levels is at least partly due to the health benefits derived from employment.”
Researchers at the Institute of Economic Affairs in Britain have also recently identified “negative and substantial effects on health from retirement.” Their study found retirement to be associated with a significant increase in clinical depression and a decline in self-assessed health, and that these effects grew larger as the number of years people spent in retirement increased.
Similarly, a study published in 2008 by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that full retirement increased difficulties with mobility and daily activities by 5 percent to 16 percent and, by reducing physical exertion and social interactions, also harmed mental health.
The big question is whether the physical deterioration after retirement occurs because poor health leads people to end their working life. Some studies find that retirement doesn’t harm health — and may actually improve it. Another study finds harm from early retirement but no benefit from delaying retirement beyond the traditional age.
It appears there is at least strongly suggestive evidence that not working, in and of itself, can be harmful to your health. And this raises the question of what it means for the puzzling finding that overall life expectancy appears to rise, not fall, during recessions.
Peter Orszag, chairman of financial strategy and solutions at Citigroup and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget