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.

Phil V.

This is just the typical Capitalist propaganda that we are supposed to work and work and work to structure our lives. I've been retired 6 years and couldn't be happier and more fulfilled in my existence without that stomach turning structure.

Boyd Lemon

These statistics are misleading. If you plan for retirement, more than just financially, so that you have a plan as to what you will do with your free time and a passion to pursue during your retirement, I would bet that retirement does not shorten your life, and, in fact, may lengthen it. However, if you languish in boredom with nothing to do, or lack the financial means to do anything except watch TV, then I don't doubt it would shorten your life.

Boyd Lemon-Author of “Eat, Walk, Write: An American Senior’s Year of Adventure in Paris and Tuscany,” "Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers His Marriages," the author’s journey to understand his role in the destruction of his three marriages and “Unexpected Love and Other Stories. Information, reviews and excerpts:
Travel blog:
Retirement blog:



My husband will turn 67 in July. He is still working full-time for almost the next two years.

His job is not blue-collar, pays extremely well and he enjoys the work. Yet, I his wife of 4 decades plus, can see the tiredness that was not previously evident.

I work part-time as a writer from home and can see that he looks forward to doing contracts from home which will not 'fall into his lap' but will be ones that he actively seeks on the basis of his excellent reputation in his field. He is already pursuing this work...

Life favours those who do not feel a 'victim', but see an opportunity and are willing to strive be excellent.

And anyone who favours the 'victim' response, should read "Little Comrades" by Laurie Lewis for a hair-raising story of poverty, sexual abuse and lack of education paid for by Mommy & Daddy not standing in the way of a REALLY full and rich life (at 80, Laurie made the Globe and Mail's 100 best reads of 2011).



So, what effort has been made to remove the effect of people retiring due to poor health and then dying? The bank I work for will compassionately pension folk off who are only expected to live less than a year who cannot work; others will decide to spend that last year 'retired' than at the office.

Also, what correlation is there between not working and having nothing to do? Do the unemployed drop off like flies as well?

Chris Hengler

I was really surprised that you did not talk about whether there was a difference in the populations of early retirees and later retirees. It would seem to me that at least some of the early retirees did so because they were of poor health. So, if there was at least some of this population that took early retirement because they were ill, it would stand to reason that some of the increased mortality was due to that.

Since you are economists, I would have assumed that this would have been taken into consideration and the populations somehow adjusted for that.

Chuck Blakeman

We teach business owners to never retire through our book, "Making Money is Killing Your Business", but to instead use their business to build an Ideal Lifestyle within 3to5 years from starting it. My next book, "Retirement is a Bankrupt Industrial Age Idea", reveals 12 cultural diseases of the Industrial Age (Retirement, Money vs. Time, the concept of an "employee", addiction to "big", etc.) and encourages business owners to build a business that doesn't require that they wait until they are 65 to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but to build a Mature Business in 3to5 years.

We define a Mature Business as one that regularly allows you to be somewhere else (vacation, starting a foundation, creating another company) and it makes money for you while you are not there. Thousands of business owners have committed to building Mature Businesses around the globe. We are now on four continents with our 3to5 Clubs and they are expanding rapidly.

Retirement isn't just over-rated. It's a terrible idea. People need to move away from this dumb idea which Otto von Bismarck invented. We were made to do and to be something significant all our lives, not just for the first two-thirds of our lives. That doesn't mean you have to go to work in a traditional sense, even at the age of 35. It means you figure out how to build a business that produces both time and money, not just money, then use those two resources to build a life of significance.

Move from survival right through success (Industrial Age concept) to Significance. If you do, you'll be so busy doing the things you love that you won't have time to die. And retirement will never be attractive.



Maybe people who take early retirement need to due to existing health issues.

Cardiovascular issues typically build up over time, so they may have been present beforehand.


Shouldn't we see the same effect on women who do not return to work after their children leave the nest compared to those who do?


I'm a benefits specialist (actuary) and despite reading Stephen's comment and the study conducted in Austria, I maintain health is a major reason employees choose to retire early. Health care costs are, on average, typically 150-200% higher for pre-65 retirees than their active-at-work counterparts of the same age. While premiums are charged as a blended rate, companies keep careful records of healthcare costs of employees by age and status (active, retired, disabled). I also agree the other factors mentioned in this article contribute to early death, but pre-retirement health is also a major factor.


Hmmmmm . . . Two unrelated observations: 1) So if 100% of the subjects included in the study were female, then the authors would have to conclude that early retirement has no impact on longevity. 2) The study seems to be saying, simply, that sedentary lifestyles (and apparently unhealthy health habits) decrease your longevity. The implication then, for those of us in the modern workforce who sit motionless at a computer monitor, is that a) the study relevant to us hasn't been done yet, but b) if we in the modern workforce extrapolate from the authors findings, then we would expect a significant INCREASE in longevity upon retirement, provided that we are more active than pre-retirement, no? What am missing here.


What about people forced into early retirement due to illness?