Research seminar examines working life extensions’ impact

Austin Fainsold, Contributing Reporter

Modern technological and scientific advancements of medicine have lengthened our natural lifespans and extended our working lives as well, which has raised important challenges to policies intended to support our aging worker population. The Case Western Reserve University Social Justice Institute and the Department of Sociology co-sponsored the policy seminar entitled, “Is Extending Working Life the Best Response to Population Aging for All Workers?” on Nov. 29. Dr. Ainé Ní Léime of the Center for Social Gerontology at the National University of Ireland discussed the results of her preliminary findings from her research on Gender, Older Workers and the Lifecourse (GENDOWL) conducted here at CWRU as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie research fellow in the Department of Sociology.                                                                          

GENDOWL engages the narratives, decision-making and outcomes concerning retirement for custodians, home health aides and teachers. This qualitative research examines the desire and ability to continue work later in life, whether it is out of financial necessity or individual preference, and the impact of policies that affect these decisions. The policies include increased pension provisions or an older retirement age, as well as allowing a flexibility to work upon retirement. The U.S. has raised the retirement age for receiving a pension or

Social Security benefits to 66, Chair of the Department of Sociology at University at Buffalo Debra Street explained. Workers in physically demanding jobs are more likely to experience an early onset of chronic conditions which inhibit their capacity to work later in life or to work until the retirement age. The participants in Ní Léime’s study with more secure, less labor intensive and lower income work still reported high levels of stress, which left them desiring retirement, even though they were often unable to do so economically.

Ní Léime is a proponent of cumulative disadvantage/advantage theory and the life course perspective; she examines the accumulation of stress throughout the life course and how the amalgamation of positive and negative stressors is conducive to successful or unsuccessful aging. In other words, Ní Léime explained, “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”

In order to inform the policy process in regards to working-life extensions, Ní Léime said she believes that viewing the workers’ lives within a structural, cultural and social context and understanding how cumulative advantages and disadvantages are perpetuated by these dynamics must be denoted. Individuals in precarious jobs without sustainable pensions are not presented with the same choices, or even information, as those in wealthier and more secure positions. Chris, a custodian interviewed for this study, said, “Well now, I didn’t think about pensions and stuff…. Yeah, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just thinking about getting through the day, getting out all in one piece.”

Those in precarious work were not approached or encouraged by supervisors to manage their financial commitments for future fiscal security, while those in secure positions found that although they had no prior understanding, unions and colleagues would quickly make them aware of these options.

Ní Léime’s work focuses on gender as well. Women’s unpaid labor is not considered in the calculations of Social Security pensions. Social expectations to provide unpaid care for children, the ill and the elderly within a family disproportionately fall upon women. These implications are not well understood from the perspective of the workforce. Questions with regard to the effect of these policies upon individual workers must be posed in order to inform such a policy process.

Street provided a guest lecture at the Nov. 29 event which examined the retirement challenges facing the U.S. workforce to complement Ní Léime’s work. Street raised important questions such as, “If worklife is extended, who will it be provided for, and what jobs will be available?”

According to Ní Léime and Street, extending the working life appears to be a short-sighted notion, disregarding the implications of class and gender on work capacity, availability and unjust necessity. Street recommended that we should “avoid the temptation to let notions of ideals interfere with accomplishing better outcomes.”

In order to correctly address workers’ longevity, instead of simply extending their working lives, Ni Leime said she thinks policy should strive to allow earlier retirement with full pensions to workers who perform more labor intensive work as well as to those who began their work lives earlier. She also argued that the push for policies to extend the working lifespan is potentially dangerous and requires further research.