The New Year often inspires people to take stock of future job prospects and long-term retirement plans.
However, people often focus on relatively short-term considerations, such as wages and salaries, promotion opportunities, and 401(k) plans.
Most are unaware that the very nature of their work can affect their mental capabilities after they retire and leave the workforce.
“Your job can impact your cognitive functioning in later life,” says Amanda Sonnega, an associate research scientist at the Institute for Social Research (ISR).
Even accounting for other health changes that come with age, researchers found retirement tends to be associated with some level of cognitive decline that is not just an effect of aging, she says.
“In general, working seems to provide a level of cognitive stimulation that is protective against cognitive decline at older ages,” Sonnega says. “Researchers are looking at what it is about work that serves this role.”
Sonnega and her colleagues at ISR, as well as researchers at other universities, are using a treasure trove of data collected over the past 31 years by U-M’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to explore the job characteristics critical to keeping the brain healthy well into the golden years.
The HRS, which began in 1992 and is housed at ISR, is the nation’s leading resource for information on aging in America.
“It puts all of life into one survey and allows researchers to do comprehensive analyses relating to health, social interactions, pension plans, and even the neighborhood where you live,” Sonnega says.
Every two years, the HRS interviews approximately 20,000 participants in a representative sample of people over age 50 to find out how life changes as they age.
This information touches on various socio-economic topics: health and physical functioning, current employment, retirement plans, income and wealth, and family connections. Interviewers also obtain physiological and biological information about the participants, ranging from their walking speed and grip strength to their cholesterol and hbA1C levels.
Cognitive complexity and work
Thus far, researchers have keyed in on the cognitive complexity of work as being protective against cognitive decline, according to Sonnega.
“Jobs requiring more complex mental activities can help build a healthy brain reserve,” she says. Occupations most beneficial for long-term brain health entail frequent decision-making, problem-solving, and creative thinking. In addition, coaching others and developing talent are the most beneficial activities for long-term brain health.
“Conversely, we are beginning to investigate the effect of ‘bad’ jobs on later-life cognition,” Sonnega says. “Jobs that expose workers to harmful conditions, such as loud noises (which can contribute to hearing loss), may then lead to cognitive decline after retirement.”
Additional occupational factors can adversely impact workers’ long-term mental capabilities.
In a related study that used HRS data, researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health found that individuals who consistently earned low wages during their working years experienced significantly faster memory decline in older age than workers who never earned low wages.
The study looked at data for 2,879 individuals born between 1936-41 who had participated in the HRS from 1992-2016.
The findings revealed consistent low-wage earners experienced approximately one excess year of cognitive aging over 10 years; this additional loss was equivalent to 11 years of cognitive aging experienced by workers who earned higher wages.
Sonnega offers advice to people still in the early phases of their careers, saying: “Something to consider while you are making decisions about your job when you are younger is the cognitive complexity of the work and whether the work offers opportunities to interact with others. The choices you make throughout your career can help to protect your brain health later on.”
Motivators behind retirement
Retirement age represents a pivotal point in life. An individual’s decision to quit the workforce versus continuing to pursue meaningful work or volunteer activities can affect their cognitive capabilities.
But what motivates some people to retire before or at age 65 while others stay on the job?
To find out, Sonnega used HRS data on 5,072 individuals who rated their job in terms of how stressful it was, how much thinking was required, and how physically demanding it was. She also tapped into information linked to the HRS data from the Occupational Information Network, which provides an objective rating of those same job characteristics.
“We considered how physically able people felt, their level of depressive symptoms, and their cognitive functioning,” Sonnega says. “Then we examined how the mismatch between physical, emotional, and cognitive job demands and relevant personal resources affected retirement timing.”
Her findings provided critical insights into the motivators behind retirement.
“The people most likely to retire were those who had a mismatch between their emotional health and the stress of the job; and between their physical health and the physical demands of the job,” Sonnega reports.
“Interestingly,” she adds, “there was no connection between cognitive mismatch and retirement. This is possibly because people experiencing a certain level of cognitive decline do not keep working.”
Lure of self-employment
These days, more retirees are looking for self-employment opportunities.
Estimates from the 2016 wave of the HRS suggest that the fraction of self-employed workers increases with age from 15.4 percent of workers younger than 55, to 17.1 percent of workers ages 55-65, and to 33.8 percent of workers 65 and older.
“We see workers from all roles transition into independent self-employment at the time of retirement,” says Joelle Abramowitz, an assistant research scientist at ISR. “Self-employment can provide the flexibility to work fewer hours and have lower stress, which tends to be what workers moving into retirement are looking for.”
The barriers to entry around self-employment are lower than ever today, with the advent of the electronically mediated gig economy and the switch to remote work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, Medicare can make self-employment more attractive because retirement-age workers no longer need to rely on their employers for health insurance.
Some older workers use self-employment to bridge their career jobs and retirement. Others become entrepreneurs out of necessity when they can’t get hired due to outdated skills or ageism.
A leading question is whether retirement-age workers are better off choosing self-employment rather than pursuing alternative employment options.
In her study, Abramowitz used narrative descriptions of industry and occupation from respondents in the HRS and machine-learning methods to classify how older workers engage in self-employment. Then she examined how that work is associated with financial, physical, and mental well-being in retirement.
She found that self-employed people in three major categories ― a business owner, a business manager, or an independent contractor or consultant ― tend to be better off than wage and salaried employees. Self-employed individuals enjoy more income, greater wealth, and better health, contributing to their overall well-being.
“Compared to employees, the self-employed are more likely to report excellent or very good health and are less likely to say they are depressed,” Abramowitz explains. “This is particularly true for business managers and owners.”
Independent self-employment (such as freelance contracting and consulting) appears to be the most physically demanding work and is associated with lower compensation and fewer hours worked. But it involves the least stress, according to Abramowitz.
By comparison, business managers and owners have the least physically demanding jobs and enjoy higher compensation. However, they also work the most hours and have the most stressful jobs.
Many retirement-age individuals see their later years as a time to give back to their community through ongoing professional work or volunteer efforts.
Josephine Malecek, BSN ’99, is one of them.
Her dedicated career as an RN, educator, and, more recently, author spans 57 years. At age 77, she’s still going strong.
Malecek graduated from a three-year diploma nursing program at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ann Arbor in 1966 and started her nursing career in critical care and cardiac surgery.
“I always wanted to go to U-M for my BSN,” says Malecek, who earned her baccalaureate degree at Michigan in 1999 while raising a family and working full-time at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital. After completing a master’s degree in nursing in 2013, she held various clinical, administrative, and teaching positions in California and Michigan.
Currently, Malecek works full-time as a clinical administrator and educator at a long-term care and rehabilitation facility in St. Clair Shores, where her talent, experience, and education are very much needed.
“I’ve observed many people over the years who have given up their professional careers,” she says. “I think they begin to age and retreat into their own little world because they are not mentally stimulated or doing productive things.”
Malecek intends to work until she’s 80, or maybe longer. She firmly believes that staying active physically, mentally, emotionally, and professionally is essential for maintaining her health and well-being.
“Giving back, either as a volunteer or in a paid position, helps a person keep a positive attitude in life,” Malecek says. “Learning something new every day is important at any age, especially when you get older.”
(Lead image: iStock.)