Understanding employment patterns among older workers in four countries

Study finds relationships among education level, disability, work participation not always as expected

Published: October 1, 2019

In most developed countries, including Canada, governments are implementing policies to encourage older people to work past 65 years of age in order to delay their retirement and reduce the costs associated with disability benefits and pension payments. Yet, despite this push to extend working lives, we know little about who already works past this age.

To address this information gap, the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), the University of Liverpool, the University of Copenhagen and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm are conducting an ongoing project in four countries—Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden—to compare policies designed to extend the working lives of older workers.

A peer-reviewed journal article from this project was published in March 2019 in BMC Public Health (doi:10.1186/s12889-019-6594-7). The article reported on a study that looked at differences among the four countries in employment rates (employment was defined as working more than an hour a week) of people 65 to 75 years old. The study also looked at how rates of employment among this older age group differed by gender, education and health condition (the latter was determined by whether or not respondents had a limiting, long-standing illness).

The study, authored by Dr. Ashley McAllister, a post-doctoral fellow at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and a visiting research fellow at IWH in the spring of 2017, drew on a nationally representative survey in each of the four countries. In Canada, that included the subset of respondents aged 65 to 75 among the 65,000 respondents (aged 35 to 75) to Statistics Canada’s 2012-13 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS). Datasets from the other three countries included 1,300 to 3,500 respondents, all between the ages of 65 and 75.

The study found several expected similarities across the countries with respect to the employment of people aged 65 to 75. Employment rates were lower among women than among men. As well, although employment rates were lower among people with health conditions than among people without, they varied considerably according to education levels. In all four countries, women with low education and long-standing illnesses had the lowest employment rates. Higher levels of education among men and women with long-standing illnesses were associated with higher employment rates in all four countries.

The study also found a few surprising patterns with respect to the employment of people aged 65 to 75. For one, a country’s higher unemployment rate overall did not necessarily mean older workers were less likely to be employed. Sweden had the highest overall unemployment rate of the four countries (8.1 per cent in 2013), but also some of higher rates of employment among older people. The opposite was true in the U.K., which had both relatively high unemployment rates overall (7.5 per cent) and the lowest employment rates of older workers of the four countries.

A second surprise: older people with higher education had higher employment rates, but not always. In the U.K., employment rates differed very little based on education levels. In another unexpected finding, little difference was found in Sweden between the employment rates of men with and without long-standing illnesses, or between highly educated men and women with long-standing illnesses and their healthy peers.

Common challenge, different approaches

The four countries included in this project were chosen because they share the common challenge of an aging workforce, yet have taken different approaches to encouraging people 65 years and older to stay in paid work, says McAllister.

She says the results in this study were more nuanced than expected, underscoring the importance of context. We saw differences in the employment of older workers even in countries that we thought were similar, she says. For example, although Canada and the U.K. share many policies common to liberal welfare regimes, the research team found Canada to be more like Sweden than the U.K. with respect to many outcomes. She adds, however, that in a descriptive study such as this, we can identify differences but, due to the study design, we cannot clearly identify the policy influences that shape these differences.

One takeaway from the study is that policies designed to encourage work participation among older workers shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all, says McAllister. Many countries adopt universal policies such as extending the official age of retirement or creating financial incentives to remain working, but older workers make up a very heterogeneous group. They are not all alike, she notes.