Life after work: older australians' experiences of early exit from the workforce.
Abstract: Little is known about the experience of those in the baby boom cohort who are outside the labour market. Understanding their experience has the potential to inform policy strategies to support older people to remain longer in the workforce. Using in-depth interview data from 26 participants, this paper examines the reasons people aged between 50 and 64 years give for being not-employed, how they perceive it affects their health, how socioeconomic characteristics shape their experience and what would entice them back into paid work. Participants' main reasons for being not-employed included: feeling financially able and ready to exit, feeling unhappy about workplace reorganisations, disability, or their partner's retirement or ill-health. The reasons given and the degree to which they had planned to exit the workforce affected their willingness and capacity to consider returning. Key determinants of participants' health and wellbeing after stopping paid work were the extent to which they had planned their exit and the status of their health and wealth at the time of their exit. The paper concludes there is some scope for increasing the number of employed older people if policy makers attend to workforce health and wellbeing as crucial to workforce retention policy development.

Keywords: baby boomers, labour market, workforce health, population ageing, pensions
Article Type: Report
Subject: Work environment (Influence)
Labor market (Demographic aspects)
Labor market (Analysis)
Early retirement (Analysis)
Early retirement (Social aspects)
Baby boom generation (Employment)
Aged (Employment)
Aged (Social aspects)
Aged (Compensation and benefits)
Aged (Health aspects)
Retirement planning
Authors: Mackenzie, Catherine
Keuskamp, Dominic
Ziersch, Anna
Baum, Fran
Pub Date: 06/22/2011
Publication: Name: Australian Journal of Social Issues Publisher: Australian Council of Social Service Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Australian Council of Social Service ISSN: 0157-6321
Issue: Date: Summer, 2011 Source Volume: 46 Source Issue: 4
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs; 280 Personnel administration; 530 Labor force information Canadian Subject Form: Labour market; Labour market
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Australia Geographic Code: 8AUST Australia
Accession Number: 301964264
Full Text: Introduction

The Australian population is ageing and a growing proportion of older workers is exiting the labour market younger than the qualifying age for the state-provided Age Pension (Schofield et al. 2007; Shacklock et al. 2009). Research on the workforce participation patterns of older workers has mainly focussed on their retirement plans and the numbers of those in and out of the workforce. Less is known about the experience of 50-64 year olds already outside the workforce, including whether they are able or willing to consider re-entering paid employment and the extent to which they may move in and out of the workforce. Even less is known about this group's health (Quine & Carter 2006; Humpel et al. 2010b). Using data from in-depth interviews this paper seeks to address those gaps in research by exploring the reasons people aged 50-64 leave the workforce, how they perceive being outside the workforce affects their health and wellbeing, how their socioeconomic circumstances shape their experience and how they imagine their future, including re-entering the workforce. We consider briefly the implications of our findings for Australian labour force policy.

Policy context

As the population ages, health expenditure has been predicted to rise and the paid workforce to shrink, the consequence being reduced taxation revenue to meet health expenses (Productivity Commission 2005; Cai & Kalb 2006). In the 1980s and 1990s policy makers encouraged early workforce exit during a period of relatively high unemployment, so that younger generations could take the available jobs (OECD 2004, 2006; Walter et al. 2008). More recently, however, unemployment rates have been lower and the key policy issue has become labour shortage (Productivity. Commission 2005).

Since the early 2000s the Australian Government has been implementing a range of strategies to encourage older workers, defined as those aged 50 years or more, to remain in the labour market for longer (OECD 2006; Walter et al. 2008; Humpel et al. 2009). Policy strategies have centred on financial incentives to remain in paid work and disincentives to exit the workforce in line with a move to reduce welfare expenditure. These have included increasing the qualifying age for the state-provided Age Pension, (1) removing the Mature Age Allowance which until 2003 was available for unemployed older workers, introducing tax reforms to remove incentives to exit early and increasing the eligibility age for occupational pensions (OECD 2005, 2006; Felmingham et al. 2008; Walter et al. 2008; D'Addio et al. 2010). Additional smaller-scale strategies have also been introduced, such as the provision of information to help reduce age-based discrimination and increased support and training for unemployed people over 50 years old (OECD 2004; Walter et al. 2008; D'Addio et al. 2010; DEEWR 2011).

As part of policy effort to reduce welfare payments, Australian disability" services, including the Disability Support Pension, have also undergone substantial change since disability policy was identified as a 'national social policy priority' in the 1970s (Soldatic & Pini 2012: 184). A shift from welfare as a right to welfare as a social contract, with regard to disability support, began with the introduction of mutual obligation requirements by the Howard Government's Welfare to Work policy (Yeatman 2000; Humpage 2007). The basic premise underpinning Welfare to Work is that if welfare recipients are exhorted to participate in work or training in order to maintain their benefits, they will be more likely to move in to the labour market voluntarily (Soldatic & Pini 2009). This logic locates the problem as individuals' lack of volition to work (Humpage 2007; Soldatic & Pini 2009). Paradoxically, Disability Support Pension recipients would lose their pension and associated support if they work more than the maximum hours prescribed, creating a disincentive to gain paid work (Humpage 2007). Recent changes to disability policy have further tightened eligibility criteria and reduced access to other disability supports (Soldatic & Pini 2012). Tightening of the eligibility criteria for both the Age Pension and the Disability Support Pension reflects the direction of welfare reforms that have been occurring in western liberal democracies over the past three decades (Yeatman 2000; Mendes 2009). Placing policy emphasis on financial incentives and disincentives, for both the Age Pension and the Disability Support Pension, assumes that the dominant motivation for workers to remain in, or leave, the workforce is monetary reward Walter et al. 2008).

Retirement plans and patterns

The group that is currently most affected by policies relating to older workers, that is people aged 50 to 64 years, falls within the large 'baby boom' cohort. The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines the baby boom cohort as people born between 1946 and 1965 (ABS 2003). Most Australian research on baby boomer workforce exiting uses the term 'retirement' or 'early retirement', which connotes a voluntary withdrawal from the workforce (Alavinia & Burdorf 2008). Retirement is further defined as a process which involves, to varying degrees, planning and decision-making (Topa et al. 2009). Much retirement research in Australia examines the retirement plans or retirement intentions of those who are still employed but close to retirement age (Onyx & Baker 2006; Quine et al. 2007; Cobb-Clark & Stillman 2009; Humpel et al. 2009; Shacklock et al. 2009). This research suggests early retirement is becoming less common among baby boomers, with some believing they may never retire (Cobb-Clark & Stillman 2009; Humpel et al. 2010a; Jackson & Walter 2010). It seems, however, that baby boomers' expectations are responding to the global financial crisis and reduced superannuation funds, rather than Australian government policy (Humpel et al. 2010a; Jackson & Walter 2010). Furthermore, the limited research relating to how Australians have responded to policy measures designed to encourage delayed retirement suggests that non-financial measures would be more effective, for example, valuing older workers by offering them opportunities to mentor or train younger workers (Walter et al. 2008).

Survey data suggest that most Australians would prefer to retire gradually rather than abruptly, either by changing from full-time to part-time, or remaining full-time but reducing their level of responsibility (de Vaus et al. 2007; Warren 2008; Jackson & Walter 2010). Employment in the transition to retirement is often termed 'bridge employment' (Warren 2008; Gobeski & Beehr 2009). Australian and international research indicates that bridge employment qualities such as flexible working arrangements and positive working relationships are important job features for older people (Shacklock et al. 2007; Gobeski & Beehr 2009).

Other research indicates, however, that having control over decision-making and timing of retirement is more important to people's wellbeing in retirement than whether or not retirement is gradual (de Vaus et al. 2007). Wealth, including superannuation, appears positively related to being able to plan for and have control over the timing and nature of retirement (McMunn et al. 2006; Quine et al. 2006).

Early workforce exit and health

A substantial proportion of those out of the workforce are not 'retired' in the sense that their withdrawal was not necessarily voluntary or planned. Rather, they have exited because of ill-health, chronic disease or disability (Schofield et al. 2007; Alavinia & Burdorf 2008; D'Addio et al. 2010). In their meta-analysis of international research on retirement, which included six studies from Australia, Topa and colleagues (2009) explored antecedents and consequences of retirement planning (contemplating retirement and retirement intention), in contrast with those of retirement decision-making (the actual decision to retire and moment of retirement). They found that the extent to which retirement is planned prior to the decision to retire affects the level of satisfaction people experience in retirement. Deteriorating health reduces the capacity for retirement planning and brings on retirement decision-making; that is, it precipitates the act of exiting work (Topa et al. 2009).

The relationship between retirement planning/retirement decision-making and health/wellbeing is complex, and poor health is cited as a major reason given for early labour market exit both internationally and in Australia (ABS 2008; Topa et al. 2009). Globally, wealth and education are acknowledged as important social determinants of health and wellbeing in older age (Marmot 2010; McMunn et al. 2006; Bender 2012). Older Australians who are wealthy are more likely to maintain good health as they age than those who are poor (Cai 2009). Further, there is evidence that blue collar workers are less physically able to work beyond 65 years and less able to fund their retirement without Government assistance (Quine et al. 2006). Yet, survey data suggest that blue collar workers are more likely to expect to delay retirement than white collar workers, in spite of preferring an early exit, because they have insufficient superannuation (Jackson & Walter 2010). In the other direction, older workers who report good health are far more likely to be participating in the labour force than those in poor health (Cai & Kalb 2006; Schofield et al. 2007).

Workers living with disability have lower labour market earnings than workers without disability (Brazenor 2002). This has implications for capacity for wealth accumulation and planning for retirement. In addition, there is an association between early exit and higher incidence of mental illness, particularly among men between 45 and 65 years (Karpansalo et al. 2004, Karpansalo et al. 2005; Butterworth et al. 2006; Gill et al. 2006).

Research that explores Australian baby boomers' health and wellbeing is in its infancy (Quine & Carter 2006; Humpel et al. 2010b). Information is scarce regarding the factors that would encourage baby boomers already outside the workforce, as opposed to those planning retirement, to consider re-entering paid employment. Hence, using data from in-depth interviews this paper seeks to answer the following questions 1) what reasons do 50-64 year old people who are not-employed give for being out of the workforce? 2) how do they perceive being not-employed affects their health and wellbeing? 3) how do socioeconomic characteristics shape their experience of not working? and 4) how do they perceive their future, including their potential for returning to work?

Methods

Recruitment and sample selection

We used a population survey, undertaken in South Australia, to recruit 26 participants aged 50 to 64 years for in-depth semi-structured interviews to examine their experiences of not working in the paid labour force, with a focus on what contributes to their health and wellbeing. We selected this particular age range for our study sample because, firstly, international and Australian data on older workers refers to older workers as being over 50 years and at 65 years Australians are eligible for the Age Pension (OECD 2006; Alavinia & Burdorf 2008; D'Addio et al. 2010). Secondly, research suggests that it is more difficult for workers aged 50 years or more to gain and retain employment than for younger workers (Abhayaratna & Lattimore 2006; OECD 2006). Thirdly, there is a specific policy push to increase rates of employment of people over 50 years (OECD 2006; DHoA 2010; for examples, see DEEWR 2011).

We recruited our study sample by using the 2009 South Australian Health Monitor survey which is a computer-assisted telephone interview (CATI) survey administered by the South Australian Department of Health as part of the South Australian Monitoring and Surveillance System (SAMMS) (see PROS 2004). There were 1,853 survey respondents. We sought and were granted approval to include a series of questions about paid work status, respondents' time in that status, and their preference for working or not working. We included a question in the survey seeking respondents' permission to be contacted by the research team for a one-off face-to-face interview about their employment, health and wellbeing.

We obtained University ethics approval prior to conducting this study and sought written consent from participants at the time of each interview. Sixty-eight respondents agreed to a further interview and 47 met our study criteria of being not-employed at the time of the survey, aged between 50-64 years in 2010 and out of the workforce for no more than 10 years. We categorised respondents as not-employed if they had self-reported as retired, on home duties or unable to work because of illness or disability. From these, we recruited and interviewed 26 participants (14 women and 12 men, and 14 from metropolitan and 12 from regional areas) up to one year after the survey was conducted. We did not interview the remaining 21 because we could not establish contact, they were excluded (for example, at contact they stated they were out of the workforce longer than 10 years or self-reported they were now employed) or they declined to participate.

Five participants had bridge employment and had either reported their status as not-employed in the survey because they did not view that being "retired' excluded any participation in paid work, or they had gained bridge employment since the survey yet did not view themselves as being employed. Their paid work hours ranged from two to 20 hours per week. We decided to include these participants because one of the notable recent changes in workforce participation is that the transition from being fully employed to exiting the workforce permanently (if at all) is dynamic rather than static (Shacklock et al. 2007; Warren 2008; Gobeski & Beehr 2009). Further, these participants could provide insights about their experience of bridge employment and their transitions between leaving their main job and taking up bridge employment. A brief profile of each participant is presented below in Table 1.

Interview schedule design

We designed a semi-structured interview schedule so that questions would be open-ended and conversational to ensure that we captured the complexity of participants' experiences (Strauss 1987; Kvale 1996). Interviews began by asking about participants' work history, followed by the circumstances of their workforce exit and their experience of transitioning from paid work to being not-employed. Subsequent questions focussed on participants' health and wellbeing, their activities and relationships in other domains of their lives, both while working and since leaving work, for example: 'Can you tell me a bit more about how you spend your time now--can you take me through a typical week?'. Participants were asked about their future, including what would enable them to return to work, for example: 'Under what conditions would you consider taking up paid employment?'. Interviews averaged 90 minutes, varied between 40 and 135 minutes and were transcribed in full, using pseudonyms to maintain confidentiality.

Analysis

We analysed interview data using framework analysis (Ritchie & Spencer 1994) comprising five overlapping and iterative stages: familiarisation, identifying a thematic framework, indexing, charting, and finally mapping and interpretation. Research team members read and coded several transcripts to achieve familiarisation and develop the coding framework. We developed a thematic framework, informed by the interview transcripts, and the a priori aims and focus areas of the research project. This included areas relating to employment history, current activities and future preferences, and health and wellbeing. We undertook descriptive charting to provide key information about each interview, including health status, demographic information and details including employment, social activities and family responsibilities for each participant. We entered interview transcripts into QSR International NVivo 8 for analysis, coded them according to our thematic framework, and double-coded a quarter of all transcripts to check for coding consistency between the two authors who undertook all of the coding. Inconsistencies in the coding of particular themes (for example, over-coding and under-coding transcripts into nodes, coding more or less of surrounding context) were addressed by discussion between coders and amendment of coding practice until coding was consistent.

Findings

Overview

The participants' experiences of being out of the workforce varied considerably. Our key finding was that the extent to which participants had planned the nature and timing of their exit was the strongest determinant of their experience generally and their perceptions of their health and wellbeing particularly. Given this we have structured this section according to the degree to which participants' planned their departure from the workforce.

Our findings support our argument against referring to this group of people as 'early retirees' because only four participants left work entirely voluntarily. Participants who had a planned exit described the main reasons being that they wanted to stop work while they were healthy and could still enjoy quality leisure time, or to engage in activities that work had precluded them doing. Participants who had a partially planned exit from the workforce described a range of reasons contributing to their decision, including unwelcome structural workplace changes, taking a redundancy package, or--mainly for women-their partners' exit. Five participants, as mentioned above, stated at the time of the interview recruitment telephone call that they were in bridge employment but did not consider themselves 'employed' because they had left their main job. All of these participants are included in the partially planned group because at the time of their exit from their main job, they were not fully planning to exit the workforce. Four of these five participants made the decision to take voluntary redundancy when it was offered, principally because of unwelcome organisational changes. Hence, but for these changes, they may have stayed in their main jobs. Almost all of those participants who experienced an unplanned exit from the paid workforce described being unable to continue working because of disability or ill-health. These findings are discussed in further detail below.

Planned exit

Four participants, all male, described having planned their early exit from paid work. Key to their decision was that they could afford to do so. Two had good superannuation schemes and one had earned a substantial amount of money overseas and was living on savings. Michael, quoted below, described exiting three years before the interview, having worked in bridge employment for several years, because he was eligible for an armed services pension. He felt the benefits associated with the service pension contributed to his wellbeing:

Well I have got good health but I've also got the gold card (2) which--I don't have to pay for any health things at all and that's a huge saving.... I guess that also adds to the wellbeing because you know you don't have--like if I had to have a hip replacement or a knee replacement I'd just go straight in.

(Michael, 63 yrs, regional, 3 yrs retired (3))

This group of participants described enjoying excellent health and engagement in a range of activities that promoted their health and wellbeing, for example increasing their physical activity participation and social interaction. None of this group reported worse health since exiting work and two described specific positive changes in their health since, and because of, stopping work. Oscar (59 years, metropolitan, 1 year retired) described his job as having entailed long hours and high stress and that he had suffered regular headaches which he no longer experienced. William also described his job as having been stressful and recounted several work-related injuries, including a slipped disc. He described feeling much better and not experiencing back problems or any real stress since he stopped work:

On the mental side of things it's a very stressful job and 1 found myself shifting jobs every 10 or perhaps 15 years.

(William, 59 yrs, metropolitan, 1 yr retired).

Participants from this group were not considering returning to paid work with one of the reasons being that their health had improved since leaving work. One possible exception is Troy (55 yrs, metropolitan, 2 yrs unemployed), who was contemplating training to teach English as a Second Language and working overseas, not because he needed the money, but to feel he was contributing, stating: 'I think I'd get more stimulation from life than just sitting in a house and getting old'.

This group had planned to leave the workforce, as illustrated by Oscar below, could afford to do so and thoroughly enjoyed not having to work.

I'd planned it so well. I'd been giving it--I was thinking of retiring--you know, I'd given it 12 month's thought before I did retire and I think planning and planning it ahead I think prepared me for that occasion ... really helped me with the transition.

(Oscar, 59 yrs, metropolitan, 1 yr retired).

When asked whether he would have considered remaining in his job with a reduction in hours, Oscar stated that he had considered it but based on previous experience, he would be 'double-checking everything all the time' which would be counter-productive and that it would not have been worthwhile financially. He did say, however, that he would consider unpaid work as a mentor in the same type of organisation.

For the two participants who described improved health since stopping work, it would not seem beneficial for their health to return, at least not to their previous job and/or form of employment. While this group experienced successful transition out of the workforce, their experiences also represented a minority among interview participants.

Partially planned exit

The partially planned exit group, which comprised 10 women and three men, talked about leaving their main job earlier than they had intended for a range of reasons, with workplace relationships and workplace structural changes featuring strongly. This group encompasses those who were in transition between being employed and not-employed, including those who were in bridge employment. As for the planned exit group, affordability was crucial to their decision to leave work. This group was funded by their or their partner's superannuation, savings, service pensions, part-time paid employment or unemployment benefits. Typically, this group described a key event, or series of events, that culminated in their decision to exit, which some described as being 'the straw that broke the camel's back':

There were a couple of incidents that happened that made me decide that I didn't really want to be there anymore and so when the time came ... we were going to go on six months further than we did but there were a couple of little things that happened in his life too that we decided we'll go early so we went--we left six months earlier than we anticipated. We've never regretted it, never.

(Violet, 61 yrs, metropolitan, 4 yrs retired)

In common with several of the women participants, Violet's exit from the workforce at 57 years old was precipitated by her partner's exit. Her decision, illustrated by her use of 'we' several times above, was negotiated with her partner in response to their combined experiences. Their final decision, however, was based on being able to afford to exit early because her partner was in a very good superannuation scheme. Like Violet, participants' decisions to exit earlier than intended were less likely regretted if they could afford to do so. Half of the women in this group stopped working because their partners had left the workforce for retirement or health reasons. How satisfied the women were with being out of the workforce seemed to depend on the degree to which they felt they had some say in their decision to leave work and could manage financially:

In a financial sense, it'll sound strange, but yeah somewhat because of independence. Even though I do get a small pension from Veterans' Affairs I'm not--I've always been independent. Even in marriages and relationships I've been able to do what I've wanted to do with most of my money.

(Sarah, 61 yrs, regional, 10 yrs retired).

Sarah described struggling with her diminished independence since stopping work, although at the same time she felt she ought not to return to work because her earnings would affect both her partner's Service Pension and her Partner Service Pension. In addition, Sarah described a range of health problems that she associated with being older and while she said that she would like to work more (she worked a few hours per week for cash) she did not wish to work full-time, partly because of her health.

Most of the partially planned group described being unhappy with workplace changes they had experienced in prior employment, for example new management structures, unsatisfactory relationships with managers, and having to do more for less. Joseph's account illustrated how some participants described their relationships with managers as becoming untenable:

Well I stopped work when I was 54, mainly because it got to the point where I had to either sort of retire or stand there and snot [hit] the boss and finish up doing time for physical assault. I'd just had a gutful of work, you know?

(Joseph, 63 yrs, regional, 8 yrs retired)

The four participants who had taken redundancy packages had since gained part-time bridge employment, in occupations and industries different from their previous main jobs. Two had re-trained to do so. The decision to take a redundancy package was typically weighed up against a range of factors. Ruby, for example, gave three reasons for taking a package: she needed to undergo medical treatment and did not want to burden her workplace by taking extended leave, structural changes meant she had been working night shifts and she felt this was detrimental to her health, and most of the work that she would normally have been doing was going to be re-located interstate:

There wasn't many other jobs available and at the same time I was going--needing to have treatment ... so I took the opportunity to leave at that time so I could get to my treatment without having to worry about working and the rest of it .... It worried me that I was going to have to take the time off because I like to--I don't like to let anybody down.

(Ruby, 56 yrs, regional, retrenched 1 yr, part-time work 2 months at interview).

Once she had recovered from her treatment, Ruby retrained as an aged care worker and was working part-time in that field. The reasons she gave for gaining bridge employment were that her husband was still working full-time, she was too young to be eligible for the Age Pension, and she wanted to be able to afford household renovations, to go on holidays and to buy presents for their grandchildren. She described feeling valued in her working relationships with colleagues and residents, and this seemed key to her remaining in the workforce. This was typical of participants who enjoyed their bridge employment. In addition, Ruby felt working was better for her health, stating: 'definitely it does. I think more with the mental health but, yeah, physical health too in a way because I'm on the go, like walking'.

Sophia's account was typical of participants in the partially planned group who were in transition because they had neither planned nor felt ready to leave the workforce completely, but at the same time were not actively seeking employment. Sophia described feeling able to live very comfortably on her own and her partner's savings until they could access their superannuation and seemed more interested in voluntary work than seriously looking for another job. She described enjoying excellent health, regular gym visits, bushwalking and travel. Her main reason for leaving the workforce was the effect that workplace relationships were having on her wellbeing:

It got to the point where [my hard work] was pretty, well totally unappreciated and you couldn't--driving home from work almost having to--you know, feeling ill and almost having to pull over, you know, so your sort of expectations were--sort of no thanks, but greater expectations and I decided 'at this point in my life'--you know, mid 50s--'don't need to endure this'.

(Sophia, 58 yrs, metropolitan, retired less than 1 yr)

Sophia had started voluntary work and was still deciding whether to try to find some part-time bridge employment or increase her voluntary work.

Most of the participants whose work had involved manual labour felt that their bodies could no longer cope with particular tasks or that their work had caused injuries to their bodies, and that stopping work improved their health. Illustrative of this group, Scarlett had started working in aged care later in her working life and found that her body could not cope with the heavy lifting involved in being a personal caret, and this, along with management changes, was why she stopped work.

So mainly in the hip and the lower back area was where it affected me most; just degeneration of the spine I would say. It's fine now. That was the main reason I stopped. Another reason was management change, different policies, government introduction of different ideas of how to look after them, that sort of stuff, and l didn't like that, couldn't cope with that.

(Scarlett, 60, regional, 3 yrs retired)

Tessa's husband, a war veteran, developed post traumatic distress disorder and was awarded the totally and permanently incapacitated disability pension by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. She stopped work because they owned a business together that she could not have run on her own as she was unable to operate some of the machinery. She found, however, that they would have had to stop work anyway because their bodies could no longer cope with the work.

Well it's virtually worn us out. Both my husband and I have got crook shoulders. Actually I've been surprised since it has happened to us though how many people are suffering from the same complaint, virtually worn out.

(Tessa, 58 yrs, regional, 2 yrs retired)

Tessa felt it was unfair that people were expected to continue working beyond 60 years old when their bodies were worn out and where work caused pain and injury. She found that even though she was no longer carrying out those tasks and that overall her body was feeling better since being not-employed, everyday physical tasks remained difficult; she said: 'I have to do it in little bites'. In the transition from working to not working she was concerned about money, but had attended counselling which had helped her cope. She described not ordinarily being interested in counselling, but because of her status as a service partner she could access it free of charge.

I was just crying at the drop of a hat, I really was stressed--and eventually the penny dropped one day and it turned out for me yes, it was all about the money.... Money meant survival, not just money--you know, you just don't throw it away; money was the difference between eating and not.

(Tessa, 58 yrs, regional, 2 yrs retired)

Most of the participants in the partially planned group reported experiencing better health since they stopped working, either because they were no longer engaged in manual labour, or experiencing work-related stress. The majority of this group found they were more physically active because they had the time to participate in regular physical activity, with some reporting taking up regular gym sessions. A few, however, reported being more sedentary. Two participants had given up smoking, which they both attributed to wanting to save money. Synthesising the accounts of the participants suggested that it was the quality of the job, for example the working relationships, level of responsibility, occupational health and safety, and its effects on mental and physical health, that influenced participants' decisions about exiting and re-entering the workforce. While the majority of the participants who had exited described experiencing better health, those in bridge employment also described experiencing health benefits from working in a good quality job.

Unplanned exit

Five men and four women attributed their unplanned exit from the workforce to mental or physical disability. Their accounts showed that they had the worst perceptions of their health and wellbeing and ability to manage financially. The five men had been in labouring or manufacturing jobs and the women in cleaning, retail or food service jobs. Most of these participants reported being disability pension recipients, with a few receiving other types of pensions. All except two of this group reported a preference for being in paid work, one of whom reported that if he could choose his form of employment, it would be working full-time. Thomas, who described having had to stop work because of his mental health, illustrates how this group typically described the unplanned nature of their exit:

I never planned [my exit] to happen in any way or thought about it until it happened. Like it's just something that--I know some people think they're never going to die. I know I'm going to die one day but I'd never talked or even thought about retirement until it happened. It probably was a bit of a shock but more so getting money--getting a pension for doing nothing. Like that was the biggest shock or embarrassment more than anything. I've never taken money like that from--people say 'oh you earned it' but I don't know about that. I still have a problem accepting that.

(Thomas, 61 yrs, regional, retired/Service pension 1 yr)

Not only did these participants leave because of mental or physical disability, but some participants in this group directly, indirectly or partially attributed their mental ill-health to their paid work. Seth (54 yrs, metropolitan, 5 yrs unable to work because of disability), for example, had been self-employed but the process of going through a court case relating to his business triggered depression and he later developed agoraphobia. He had since returned to the workforce but it became clear that his mental and physical health prevented him from feeling like he could participate. Angela had experienced workplace bullying which contributed to anxiety, depression and agoraphobia that stopped her from being able to return to work:

Life's worth more than dollars and cents' and there's just no way we should be living the way we were living whilst I was working there. Every night the poor man [husband] used to sit there and listen to me crying and screaming in frustration and everything else so it was taking a toll on him as well.

(Angela, 53 yrs, metropolitan, 10 yrs unable to work because of disability)

Lachlan suffered mental illness that he did not feel was caused by work per se, but described how events at work precipitated his breakdowns and he had not suffered any breakdowns since leaving the workforce.

I get a bit frustrated because Pm the way that I am and sometimes I think I could go back to work, I could do that, I could do that, and then bloody--like I could say 'a month away I'm going to start work' and I'll be good as gold for the first week then I'd start to worry. By the time the time come I'd be a frigging nervous wreck, I wouldn't be sleeping.

(Lachlan, 53 yrs, regional, 10 yrs unable to work because of disability)

Typical of this group, Lachlan was disappointed that he was unable to work. He did however express optimism for future workers because he believed there had been an increase in understanding and management of mental illness since he exited the workforce. He described early diagnosis as potentially leading to early support and therefore increased likelihood of worker retention.

if they'd discovered accurately what was wrong with me 30 years ago they would have stood a lot better chance of keeping me in the workforce.... There was nothing about strategies and trying to--that's sort of been a more recent thing and I think probably younger people now would probably be in a little better stead.

(Lachlan, 53 yrs, regional, 10 yrs unable to work because of disability)

This group explained their preference for work as wishing they were healthy enough to work. Had it not been for their mental or physical ill-health, they expected they would still have been in the workforce.

Some of the participants who were unable to work because of disability described physical health problems that meant they could not have continued in their type of work. Luke described having severe varicose veins and subsequent oedema that caused a great deal of pain. His job as an engineering supervisor meant that he had to walk a great deal and be on his feet most of the day, which he eventually found impossible because it exacerbated his condition:

Well at first I thought I was really too young to stop working then but when you get to the reality of it, if you want to work and your legs start playing up, you know, you could lose your leg so no point in making things worse. That's the only way to look at it really. Work or your leg, which one do you want?

(Luke, 57 yrs, regional, 8 yrs retired)

Luke appeared extremely disappointed that he had to exit the workforce and described his health as deteriorating since leaving work because he was no longer physically active. He attributed being not-employed as the reason for having been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. Typifying this group, it was nevertheless highly unlikely he would re-enter the workforce. The unplanned exit participants' accounts illustrate that a preference to be in paid work does not always reflect the capacity of individuals to do so.

Discussion

This study sought to explore the reasons 50-64 year olds who are not-employed give for being out of the workforce, how they perceive not being employed affects their health, the extent to which socioeconomic characteristics shape their experience of not working and what conditions, if any, would entice them back into the workforce. We found that for some participants the state of being not-employed in the years preceding Age Pension eligibility, was fluid, whereby people may exit from their main career and then move in and out of diverse forms of paid work in the transition to their complete exit.

Participants gave a range of reasons for being out of the workforce; these were strongly tied to the extent to which they had planned their exit. Those who had fully planned their exit all described wanting to stop work while they were healthy so they could engage in activities they could not, or had limited time to, participate in while working. Participants who had partially planned to exit the workforce described multiple motivations, with unwelcome structural workplace changes, being offered a redundancy package, or their partner's exit featuring strongly. In relation to this last point, our findings concur with research that has found that women are more likely than men to report one of their reasons for exiting the workforce being to retire with or to care for their partner (Onyx & Baker 2006; Quine et al. 2006; Cobb-Clark & Stillman 2009). Further, around half the women reported not feeling ready to stop work. Most of the women participants were in the partially planned group and health considerations their own or their partners'- had played a role in their decision to leave. Almost all of those participants who experienced an unplanned exit described mental or physical disability as the reason for their early exit. Our findings highlight how having the capacity to plan their exit improves people's experience of being not-employed in terms of health and wellbeing after their exit. This supports evidence of the importance to older workers of having at least partial control over the decision-making and timing of retirement (Quine et al. 2006; de Vaus et al. 2007). Our participants' experiences correspond with Topa and colleagues' (2009) meta-analysis that found that being unable to continue working and feeling compelled to exit the workforce had detrimental consequences for health and wellbeing. Our findings go further in elucidating the underlying social determinants which facilitate or impede this transition and the subsequent effects on people's health and wellbeing.

Once out of the paid workforce, participants' experiences depended to a significant degree on their pre-exit health status and their socioeconomic characteristics particularly their wealth, disposable income and access to health services. Thus, there was a clear socioeconomic gradient operating whereby at one end, those participants with sufficient wealth enjoyed meaningful post-exit activities in good health, and those participants at the other end of the gradient found little enjoyment in not working. Thus the gradient of inequities evident in working lives (Marmot & Wilkinson 2006; McMunn et al. 2006) carried through to peoples' experiences of retirement (Marmot 2010). In Australia, ill-health and disability are major reasons for people over 45 years old to be outside the workforce (Schofield et al. 2007). Our study findings are striking because most participants who were unable to work because of disability/ workplace injury also reported a preference for working. Despite this, their interviews revealed that most expected never to return to the workforce because of their health. Their stated preference for work seemed related to a range of factors, including regret regarding the nature of their exit from the workforce, feeling that their health and wellbeing had deteriorated since leaving the workforce, and loss of earnings. Our findings strengthen the evidence of the importance of social determinants of health and particularly wealth, for health and wellbeing in older age (Baum 2005; Cai 2009; Schofield et al. 2011).

Policy implications

Our findings provide insights into the experience of the thus far little researched group of people aged 50-64 years outside the labour force and are relevant to the current policy agenda of keeping older workers in the workforce, particularly those who are already, or are transitioning, out of the labour market. The participants most likely to be enticed back into the labour market were those who had only partially planned to retire. Many of these, however, attributed their exit at least partly to being dissatisfied with their workplace, including being unhappy with their relationships with their colleagues or superiors, or with organisational re-structuring.

The five participants who had gained bridge employment strengthen this argument because they had been dissatisfied in their main job but felt valued in their bridge employment. Four out of these five participants had taken redundancy packages and did not have the option to remain in the same position or in the same organisation. They were, however, financially able to take up other forms of employment where money was not the prime consideration, reporting that workplace relations and the extent to which they felt their work was valued outweighed the extent to which their current job was similar or not to their main job, including remuneration. Policy attention directed toward improving the psycho-social atmosphere of workplaces and strengthening support for re-training could be helpful for retaining workers similar to those participants. Australian and international studies suggest that for older workers in bridge employment higher quality jobs are more likely to yield health and well-being benefits (Cooke 2006; Shacklock et al. 2007; Gobeski & Beehr 2009; Jackson & Walter 2010). Further, Shacklock and colleagues (2007) report that their participants who were not in the paid workforce noted the attraction of flexible working arrangements and good social relations, and that self-worth and job satisfaction were extremely important.

It seemed unlikely that policy strategies based on financial incentives or disincentives would entice the few participants who planned their exit, and were enjoying retirement, to return to paid employment. There was some indication, however, that they would consider volunteering, for example as mentors. Our findings suggest that policy that is based primarily on financial incentives to remain in the workforce will have little influence on this group because their decision-making was based on a different logic to that assumed in current policy. While the participants' decision-making did include consideration of their financial status (they were all well-off), the perceived benefits of retirement, including better health and increased leisure time and wellbeing, outweighed the benefits of remaining in the workforce.

The participants least likely to return to work in response to the main current policy strategies were those whose exit was unplanned. Those who had reported they were unable to work because of disability or workplace injury offered some insights regarding policy strategies that could have helped them to stay in, or return to, paid employment. Their accounts suggest that they may have remained in the workforce had there been intervention or support at an early stage of their decline in health, for example timely action at management level to stop bullying, changes to the type or implementation of work duties, or support to understand and manage their health.

Thus increasing support, and at an early stage, for workers with mental or physical illness, would increase the success of policy approaches that encourage workers to stay in the workforce through financial incentives (Brazenor 2002; Schofield et al. 2007). Indeed, our findings suggest that increasing the eligibility age for the Age Pension and reducing accessibility to the Disability Support Pension without simultaneously providing appropriate support would be ineffective for retaining workers in ill-health or with disabilities in the workforce. This is because the reasons these workers have left the workforce could not be redressed by individual financial incentives or disincentives, but could be remedied by timely support.

Our analysis indicated that participants who were unable to work because of disability and whose exit from the workforce was unplanned were the worst off in terms of health and wealth. As Schofield and colleagues (2007) have argued, given that about 50 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women retire early because of ill-health or disability, promoting health across the workforce could substantially circumvent early labour market exits. At the same time, however, because people living with disability are likely to be in low quality jobs and have lower than average labour market earnings (Brazenor 2002), it is unclear that remaining in a potentially low-earning, low quality job would benefit their health (Cooke 2006). One of the recent policy arguments used to move Disability Support Pension recipients back in to the workforce is that the most common form of employment has shifted from traditional permanent full-time (and often lifelong) jobs toward casual and part-time jobs. This change has been argued to be a positive for people with disabilities, offering opportunities to find flexible jobs (Soldatic & Pini 2012). Given that most of our unplanned exit group had been working in casual, low paid, low quality, our findings suggest there is a danger that exhorting people with disabilities or ill-health to find casual jobs (that are also potentially low paid and low quality) may lead to even worse health and wellbeing. Further, disincentives to accessing pensions such as tightening eligibility criteria for this group would most likely not have enticed them in to paid work but may have exacerbated their poverty and their ill-health or disability.

In the Australian policy context, if not for the availability of the Disability Support Pension, many of our study participants would not have had access to any form of income and it was unlikely, particularly for those who suffered mental illness, that they could have maintained the requirements for receiving unemployment benefits. This finding supports the value of a disability pension for these vulnerable ex-workers. Nevertheless, had they been able to access support at an early stage, their experience may well have been different, given that almost all had stated a preference for being in paid employment.

Study limitations

There are several limitations to our study. While the survey achieved a high response rate, as with similar surveys it was not representative of the entire population, for example those without home telephones and those for whom English is a second language. Consequently, the interview sample also underrepresented those groups. As mentioned above, the interviews were conducted up to a year after the survey, so some participants had changed their employment status when contacted for an interview. Nevertheless, those in bridge employment provided useful data concerning what entices people who are out of the workforce to regain paid employment and demonstrates the fluidity of the meaning of retirement.

Conclusion

We conclude that the unequal distribution of resources among people aged 50-64 years who are out of the workforce means that those with greater access to resources, including accumulated wealth and better pre-exit health, experience better health and wellbeing in their lives after work than those who have fewer resources. Participants who reported enjoying excellent health were those who fully planned when they wanted to retire, retired when healthy, had enough money to live comfortably and were able to spend their time enjoying activities meaningful to them. Participants who reported experiencing poor health, by comparison, were mainly those whose exit from the workforce was unplanned, who were in financial difficulty and had few resources to participate in meaningful activities since stopping paid work. Those participants who partially planned their exit may have been enticed to stay had they felt more valued by their workplace and enjoyed better working relationships. Those who had gained bridge employment confirmed that returning to workplaces that valued them and engaging in jobs that were meaningful and rewarding were more important factors than financial incentives to remain in the workforce. Our study emphasises the need for policy responses to attend to improving workplace conditions and positive working relationships as part of encouraging older workers to postpone retirement. Moreover, our study validates the importance of increasing support for older workers to maintain their health and wellbeing, particularly if they are expected to extend their time in the workforce. Our findings suggest that increasing support for older workers living with disability or ill-health is essential for retaining and regaining employment for these workers. Crucially, our study indicates that workforce policy that emphasises financial incentives or disincentives without concurrently building systemic support structures is not likely to work for any of our study groups.

Acknowledgements

We wish to thank the study participants for giving up their time to take part in our in-depth interviews. We would also like to thank the two referees for their helpful comments. This research was funded by NHMRC grant no. 375196.

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Endnotes

(1.) In 2017, Age Pension eligibility will increase from 65 },ears old in six month increments at two-yearly intervals until 2023, when the eligible age will be 67 years for men and women. The minimum age for women has been increasing incrementally and will be 65 years by 2013 (Centrelink 2009).

(2.) The Department of Veterans' Affairs issues health cards to veterans who have been granted a service pension, whereby the Department pays for health care costs. Gold card holders are eligible to have treatment and health services for all medical conditions paid by the Department (Department of Veterans' Affairs 2011).

(3.) Participant information from survey data.
Table 1. Participant profiles

Pseudonym, age, self-reported not employed status, pension. type
(if any), length of rime in status, previous main occupation,
living arrangements, bridge employment type, locality.

Women

Mia         51, Carer, Carer's Allowance, 8 yrs, retail/hospitality,
            lives with partner, regional

Sarah       61, Retired (partner redundancy), Service Pension
            (partner), 10 yrs, retail/hospitality, current bridge
            employment--service retail, lives with partner, regional

Tessa       58, Retired, Service Pension (partner), 2 yrs,
            self-employed earth moving business with husband, lives
            with partner, regional

Samantha    63, Unemployed, Unemployment Benefit, 2 yrs, various
            casual, current bridge employment in retail shop, lives
            with partner, regional

Scarlett    60, Retired, 3 yrs, aged care worker, lives with
            partner, regional

Angela      53, Disability, Disability Pension, 10 yrs, hospitality,
            lives with partner, metropolitan

Amanda      55, Disability, Widow's Pension (divorced, not widowed),
            2 yrs, retail, lives with new partner, metropolitan

Rebecca     50, Disability, Disability Pension, 4 yrs,
            cleaner/domicillary care, married, lives with partner,
            metropolitan

Zara        60, Retired (redunancy), 3 yrs, current bridge
            employment as volunteer co-ordinator, public servant,
            lives alone, metropolitan

Charmaine   62, Retired (redundancy), 2 yrs, bank teller
            (pre-retirement bridge employment :n retail), lives with
            partner; metropolitan

Ruby        56, Retired (redunancy), 1 yr, factory worker, current
            bridge employment in aged care (2 months), lives with
            partner, regional

Stacey      63, Retired, 10 yrs, child care/ administration, lives
            with partner, metropolitan

Violet      61, Retired, 4 yrs, property management, lives with
            partner, metropolitan

Sophia      58, Retired, 1 yr, human resources, lives with partner,
            metropolitan

Men

Lachlan     53, Disability, Disability Pension, 10 yrs, labourer (+
            short time self-employed lawn mowing), lives with
            partner and adult son, regional

Thomas      61, Retired, Service Pension, 2 yrs, self employed
            mechanic, lives with partner, regional

Luke        57, Disability, Disability Pension, 8 yrs, boiler
            maker/supervisor, lives with partner, regional

Seth        54, Disability, Disability Pension, 5 yrs,
            fabricator/self employed backpackers, lives with partner
            and adult son, metropolitan

Lucas       52, Disability, Disability Pension, 9 yrs, self employed
            commercial outdoor cleaner, lives alone,
metropolitan

Nathan      63, Retired, 1 yr, mechanic in public service, current
            bridge employment in public service casual relief pool,
            lives with partner, metropolitan

Joseph      63, Retired, 1 yr, environmental health, local
            government, lives with partner, regional

Rueben      63, Retired (redundancy), 5 yrs, technician, current
            bridge employment in vocational teaching, lives with
            partner, metropolitan

Michael     63, Retired, Service Pension, 3 yrs, self employed
            mechanic (pre-retirement bridge employment in tourist
            accommodation), lives with partner, regional

Troy        55, Unemployed, 2 yrs, financial controller/ accountant,
            current bridge employment in market stalls and internet
            retail, lives alone, metropolitan

Oscar       59, Retired, 1 yr, general manager, lives alone,
            metropolitan

William     59, Retired, 1 yr, police officer, lives with partner,
            metropolitan
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