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Extending working lives

How can we keep people healthy and working into old age? (Image credit: Flickr/Sooraj Shajahan)

How can we keep people healthy and working into old age? (Image credit: Flickr/Sooraj Shajahan)

Children born today may have to wait until their late 70s until they can claim a pension. But how can we extend our working lives in a way that is both healthy and practical? David Armstrong, Professor of Medicine and Sociology at King’s College London and Chair of the LLHW Advisory Group of Experts, explains how a new set of funding should help researchers work that out.

It’s not news that as a population we are living longer; barely a day goes by without reference to the country’s ageing population. A number of factors have contributed to this, from changing fertility patterns in the last century, to dramatic increases in life expectancy over the past few decades because of better healthcare and nutrition.

But this good news is counterbalanced by some bad news. Children born today could expect to live until they are 100, but they may also be expected to work until they are over 70. This is because the economic and social costs of an ageing population are paid for by the younger working population, which is declining as a proportion of the population as it ages. Sixty years ago when the welfare state was established a man retiring at 65 could expect to live for another 10 years; nowadays this is over 20 years, and rising.  To pay the pensions and healthcare costs of these additional years working lives must be extended.

The Government has already removed the default retirement age — meaning that most people can work for as long as they want — and has recently outlined how the state pension age will be increased. But will people be healthy enough to work into their 70s?

The MRC-funded National Survey of Health and Development, which has followed a group of people since their birth in 1946, found that only 15 per cent were without any medical problem by the time they had reached their early 60s.

Some of these were manageable problems which would not interfere with normal daily living, but two-thirds of the cohort had a severe disorder. Indeed, while current life expectancy is about 85, disability-free life expectancy is nearer 65.

We need to know more about what factors mean a person can or can’t work into their older age. That’s why the MRC and ESRC held a workshop in 2012 that brought together relevant government departments, large employers and researchers to explore these issues.

You can read more about the details of this workshop in a post from Katie Finch, the MRC Programme Manager for Lifelong Health and Wellbeing. Participants in the workshop identified a number of questions to which we need answers.

These included whether working beyond retirement is good or bad for health, whether older workers are more or less productive than their younger counterparts, how quickly changes in technology mean that older workers are deskilled, and how staying in work can be incentivised.

We have committed almost £6m to funding eight proposals submitted to the funding call we formulated based on the workshop. Crucially, these projects will be carried out by either interdisciplinary research consortia or partnerships between researchers and public/private employers.

This is just the first step in addressing the national challenge of extending working lives — a task that involves collaboration across many sectors. The research councils are already collaborating on cross-disciplinary projects as well as funding research in their respective areas.

The fact that more than 50 stakeholders, ranging from government departments to major employers, have already been involved in these early activities shows just how seriously a wide range of sectors is taking this important area.

David Armstrong

Full details of funded collaborative awards are available on our website. You can also follow the Lifelong Health and Wellbeing programme on Twitter: @LLHWresearch 

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