Retirement Kills (Ep. 75)

Are you bummed out that you might have to postpone retirement for financial reasons?

Well, there may be a silver lining: it looks like retirement may be bad for your health. That’s the topic of our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, “Retirement Kills.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)

The Great Recession has put a lot of retirement plans on hold, often at the behest of governments who can’t afford to pay pensions. Germany, the U.K., and France have all upped their retirement ages.  And the U.S. is seeing a lot more older workers as well. Lisa Boily of the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that people 55 and older are expected to represent 25 percent of the labor force by 2020.

Part of this is simple demographics — the graying of the baby boom — but Americans are also working longer. In fact, the share of workers over 65 is the highest it’s been in more than 50 years:

This trend may depress you, but consider the upside. The economist Josef Zweimuller, at the University of Zurich, recently co-authored a study which found that early retirement, as much as we may crave it, seems to be bad for our health:

“[A]mong blue-collar workers, we see that workers who retire earlier have a higher mortality rates and these effects are pretty large.”

The study showed that for every extra year of early retirement, workers lost about two months of life expectancy. Nor is this the first study to show a strong relationship between early retirement and earlier death.

There’s much more to hear on the subject in the podcast, including observations from University of Florida psychologist Mo Wang, who studies retirement, and Steve Levitt, who’s got his own plan to retire and keep working at the same time.

Mike B

It's always been clear that people who find themselves with little to drive them after retirement are destined for an early grave. I am reminded of a crossing guard and auxiliary policeman in my town that was still on the job at the age of 90 when, due to various considerations, he was forced to retire after 30 some years in this secondary career. Needless to say he died after only a few weeks. And of course we all remember Andy Rooney that dropped dead literally the week after he left his post at 60 Minutes.

I wouldn't be surprised if this even includes people with the resources to stay active in various leisure activities when done only to fill time or out of some sense of obligation. The key to a longer and healthy life is a strong sense of personal value and passion for living. They can be in ones existing career or in a career one had always wanted to peruse or even in a hobby that one cares deeply for.


Voice of Reason

And it's possible that Alzheimer's play due to this. When you're spending all of your days sitting on the beach and watching TV you're not working your mind, thus you accelerate the onset of the disease. When you're actively using your mind, its onset is delayed.

Mayuresh Gaikwad

Correlation, Causation and all that jazz


My guess as to a potential causation mechanism:
Having a job enforces a healthier lifestyle. A (blue collar) worker might otherwise get more exercise in their job than they would voluantarily do in retirment. Also being at work means less time for unhealthy habits, like smoking or drinking.

Andy C.

Perhaps health is playing a role in the decision to retire. This would, of course, create a correlation in early retirement and earlier death as shown in this result.


Indeed, the decision to retire is endogenous. People often retire because they have to, not necessarily because they want to. This is particularly true for blue collar workers, who may be physically unable to continue working in their job.

Of course, I don't think our social institutions have really caught up with the notion of working to later ages. The fact that there's no good way to "downshift" a career means that many people retire when they could make contributions at a reduced rate. In a lot of careers, someone in their 60s might well have a lot to add---training newer employees, taking on administrative tasks, etc.---but may not be able to keep up a full schedule. However, there are no good ways, in general, to downshift, so you often have highly paid employees taking up a slot in which their productivity isn't what it might be.


Mr. Dubner, did you even read the study???

The authors say,
"suggesting that the negative association between retirement age and mortality in the raw data is entirely due to negative health selection"

What they mean is that people retire early **because** their health is poor, rather than that early retirement causes poor health.

Mr. Dubner, isn't a correction in order?

Stephen J. Dubner

Yes (I read the paper). And no (a correction is not in order). Take a look again at the paper (linked in post above). Specifically, these sections:

To solve the problem of negative health selection into retirement we take advantage of a major change to the unemployment insurance system in Austria.2 This policy change allowed older workers in eligible regions to retire up to 3.5 years earlier than comparable workers in non-eligible regions. The programme generated substantial variation in the actual retirement age, which, arguably, was driven only by financial incentives and not driven by differences in individuals’ health status. This lets us examine the causal impact of early retirement on mortality using instrumental variable (IV) techniques. Moreover, the comparison between ordinary least squares (OLS) and IV estimates allows us to assess the extent of health-driven selection into early retirement. ...

A second channel suggests that changes in health-related behaviours associated with smoking, drinking, an unhealthy diet, and little physical exercise may cause premature death following early retirement. Our results strongly support this hypothesis. Complementary data from cause-of-death statistics reveal that excess mortality is concentrated on three causes of deaths:

(i) ischemic heart diseases (mostly heart attacks),

(ii) diseases related to excessive alcohol consumption, and

(iii) vehicle injuries.

These three causes of death account for 78% of the causal retirement effect (while accounting for only 24% of all deaths in the sample). We calculate that 32.4% of the causal retirement effect can be directly attributed to smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.



Thank you, Mr. Dubner.


This post is sort of the converse of the old Woody Allen joke: "The food at this restaurant is terrible -- and in such small portions."

"This job is terrible -- but you get to do it until you're 90!"

Jan Cullinane

If retirement doesn't kill you, it might make you sick. "Leisure sickness," is a term coined by Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University. In a study of almost 2,000 people, about three percent of high achieving respondents identified themselves as suffering from symptoms of illness when they didn't have much to do, were on vacation, or were no longer working at high-pressure jobs.

Jan Cullinane
The New Retirement: The Ultimate Guide to the Rest of Your Life
The Single Woman's Guide to Retirement

W Peters

A major reason why people retire is that they have health issues and have to retire early -- the number is about 8%. Hence, the average life expectanc of a retirement group will by definition be worse.


I work as a retirement professional (actuary), and while I do not doubt extra leisure time may play a role in increased mortality of early retirees, at least part of this phenomon among blue collar workers is selection. Many blue collar workers choose to retiree because they can no longer physically do their job. You clearly have less healthy (on average) choosing to retire.

I think it is misleading not to at least factor in what could be the primary reason for the discrepancy in life expectancies.


I believe your concerns were already expressed by Dan in a previous comment and addressed in Dubner's reply as well.

Thomas Boutell

I heard this piece on WHYY last night. I'm with Mayuresh: as much as I personally like to think retirement is a terrible idea for people like me, the data don't tell us what's causing what here. If I'm slowing down mentally and physically, I am more likely to retire. I am also more likely to die. But forcing myself to push on in my job would not necessarily forestall my demise.

Billy Burtson

I do think that people who live dull lives after retiring may end up dying sooner. Although i would like to see more of the study in this article, it still seems like a good point. It makes sense to me.


For the idea that people retire due to poor health, which explains the excess mortality, it surely would be easy to find populations who have been forced to retire due to age li


(And WHY can't you guys add an edit/delete function to this forum?) I was saying, find populations such as airline pilots who're forced to retire at a set age, or look at long-term population studies. Or you could just look at your acquaintances who retire, and go from apparent good health to decrepitude in the space of a year or two.

For those who want to retire because they hate their jobs, why don't you just find something you like doing?