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This research report from ILC-UK and the Uncertain Futures consortium examines extended working lives, the life course and retirement transitions.

Increased longevity and population ageing are changing the way individuals move from work into retirement. Early retirement is no longer encouraged by government and employers, while improvements in life expectancy have created the opportunity – or financial necessity – to work longer.

The research undertaken by Uncertain Futures: Managing Late Career Transitions and Extended Working Life, aims to answer a series of relevant questions:

  • What evidence can be found for new “late career transitions” developing in England? Howdo these transitions compare with those found in the United States?
  • How do life course factors influence these late career transitions?
  • How is the idea of “extended working life” being constructed within the workplace?
  • What is the impact of an ageing workforce on workplace practices, training, human resources and occupational health policies?

The research consortium is composed of academics from across a wide range of institutions, including the Universities of: Kent, Bath, Brighton, Edinburgh, Leeds Beckett, Queen Mary and Manchester University and the Institute of Occupational Medicine. The research was conducted by experts in qualitative and quantitative disciplines at different stages of their careers helping to develop an interdisciplinary and intergenerational transfer of skills and ideas to produce comprehensive responses to the above questions.

Headline findings

In response to the challenge of fairness, access to various forms of flexible work is often seen as the key means for older people to continue working. However, according to new analysis summarised in this report, access to flexible working opportunities may be exaggerated. For instance, detailed case studies of UK women working in low paid sectors suggest that many simply cannot afford to work part time or reduce their hours further. Analysis of ELSA/HRS data on retirement transitions in England and the USA, shows that relatively few work ‘late’ (i.e. after SPA as a result of moving into part-time work or selfemployment). Overall then, while the concept of “bridge” employment has become fashionable in policy circles, in reality, few retirement transitions are characterised by it.

In addition to these key findings, psychological health through childhood and adulthood, as well as traumatic adversities faced in childhood, are found to have long-lasting effects that may result in early exit from employment. While such experiences are associated with becoming unemployed and permanently sick, the research also highlights the link with becoming a homemaker, a group overlooked in previous studies, who may be particularly vulnerable and in need of support if they are to integrate back into the labour force.

Professor Sarah Vickerstaff, Professor of Work and Employment, Kent University and Head of the Uncertain Futures team said:

‘In the popular imagination the process of retirement has changed dramatically, with the old cliff edge of retirement for men, working full-time and then just stopping, being a thing of the past, the evidence from the longitudinal data sets and the organisational case studies suggest however that this is an exaggeration and access to flexible work or gradual retirement is untypical’.

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