mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Work: What Is it Good For?
The Dangers of Retiring Early

Early retirement may be a very bad idea. In a new study, two Brookings scholars analyzed data on subjective happiness and work taken from the Gallup World Pull data. They found that voluntary part-time workers tended to report the highest happiness and work satisfaction. But more interestingly, it found that reducing time worked has diminishing returns. The retired, it turns out, are less happy than late workers:

Late-life workers (i.e., those working past retirement age) working full-time or voluntarily employed part-time were typically happier and more satisfied with their health than their retired counterparts. The positive effects were greatest, meanwhile, in those countries where more flexible labor market arrangements were more common (and thus publicly acceptable).

The causal patterns here are difficult to untangle. Obviously those people who can afford to work in a voluntary part-time capacity are usually more affluent than those who need to work full-time jobs, which could account for the happiness differential. Likewise, similar factors could complicate the analysis about late-life workers. Still, this is more evidence that work is a key aspect of human well-being. In America today we tend to circumscribe work around a very narrow time frame. You’re not expected to really have a job until after college (or later, if you take gap years) and you’re supposed to aim to work as hard as you can throughout your middle years to make retirement as early and easy as possible.

But maybe this is looking at things all wrong. Instead of conceptualizing work as a painful interlude between two periods of fun, perhaps we should see it as a necessary attribute of human life that children should be introduced to as early as possible and adults should stick with as late as possible.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Jim__L

    “Instead of conceptualizing work as a painful interlude between two periods of fun”

    Maybe if work allowed for more free time, instead of being an overwhelming grind that was to take absolute priority over every other facet of life (raising kids, participating in church / voluntary organizations, etc), things would be better.

    Telecommuting would help. Breaking down large corporations into smaller contracting firms would help too. Something has to change, though, or our society is going to destroy itself.

  • Anthony

    “The retired, it turns out, are less happy than late workers.” Well, posting at TAI has not encompassed as much retiree time as some have imagined.

  • Andrew Allison

    It’s hardly surprising that people who voluntarily chose to work part time are happiest. This, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with early retirement.

  • Boritz

    “Still, this is more evidence that work is a key aspect of human well-being.”

    The architects of the modern welfare state (not including FDR) consider it of no value and do a great deal to discourage it.

  • NH Indi

    Being within a couple of years of retirement, I’ve thought about this a lot. The idea of more free time to pursue my interests and no more 2 hrs of commuting each day is appealing. However, I like my job and the people I work with, and feel I’m making a contribution. Work longer at my job, start a new career, volunteer, hobbies; one thing for sure is I won’t be happy retired and sitting around.

    • Corlyss

      NH, I want to put a thought in your head, since you are a thinker. Be prepared: When you are what you do, who are you when you don’t do it any more?
      I’ve known the loss of identity retirees experience when they no longer work to kill within a matter of months.

      • NH Indi

        Thanks for the thought, Corlyss. Going to try and avoid that. Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of other interests so the job, while enjoyable and rewarding, doesn’t define me. When I do decide to leave, it will be the people I miss the most.

      • Jim__L

        I’m curious — how do you square this observation with the idea expressed in another post here that normal human beings don’t find value through work?

        • Corlyss

          You’ll have to explain what you think is the disconnect, if you would. I don’t see it myself.

          • Jim__L

            This post seems to imply that work is a good thing, and the lack of it may kill you. Your other post seems to imply that work is a terrible thing that no one would want to do.

          • Corlyss

            Now I understand your question.

            I wasn’t expressing a presonal opinioin about work in either post so much as stating the obvious. 1) If people didn’t have to work to satisfy the first two levels of Maslow’s heirarchy, they wouldn’t. If those two levels can be satisfied without working, say, by living on the dole, or disability, or generous parents, or pensions, most people wouldn’t work. 2) To the extent that people obtain secondary payoffs from work, i.e., socialization, identity, recognition, self-esteem, sense of achievement, respectability, etc., they are likely to suffer their loss when they no longer work. I have it on good authority from an organizational psychologist that that sense of loss can kill and kill quickly. I didn’t think either of those observations was very controversial.

          • Jim__L

            So you think there is no sense of loss from living on the dole? I wouldn’t agree with that.

          • Corlyss

            You need to read more Charles Murray. When you get to the 2nd and 3rd generation on welfare, and we’re now in the 4th, there’s absolutely no sense of loss. There’s only a sense of entitlement.

          • Jim__L

            Are they happy with that? Truly? Looking at pictures of places like Detroit, seeing the squalor, I simply cannot imagine that that can lead to any kind of satisfying life.

          • Corlyss

            No, of course they aren’t. But most of them don’t want to better themselves if doing so means THEY have to undertake the effort to do so. They want the government to give them more benefits. What do you think the Cloward and Piven model was all about. What do you think social activists like Alinsky and Obama seek to achieve, aside from more scarely scrutinized programs they can control themselves? More money for their alleged constituencies so their constituencies can continue to pressure their elected officials to give more programs to the activists. It’s a vicious cycle.

            Just for grins and giggles, I asked a friend with a very strong work ethic if he thought as a kid planning his life, he would have chosen to work if he knew all his basic needs would be supplied in addition to some luxuries like a car and big screen tv and air conditioning etc. would be given to him by the government. His reaction was “Why would I?” I tried out the psychic/emotional need to work, and that just made him laugh.

            This whole construct that most people would work because it’s inherent in their make up is baloney. People work because our culture is only now shifting from “work to live” to “payment for voting to maintain the politicians in office who provide the most benefits.” It’s undeniable in Europe as well as America. This was precisely what scared the crap out of the FFs about democracy. We now have increasing numbers of voters who are contribute little or nothing but who are entitled to obtain benefits from the government simply for existing. That way lies rump of skunk and madness.

          • Jim__L

            Look at gangsterism in these areas, and tell me that the system is stable.

            I don’t believe that people — men especially — are capable of living happily on the dole. They’ll be dissatisfied, and act out in destructive ways that will ultimately undermine the system. Sedatives of various kinds (alcohol, drugs, electronic entertainment) might work on many, but I think there will always be enough sheer cussedness inherent in manhood to take down any system that reduces people to irrelevance.

  • Corlyss

    “Instead of conceptualizing work as a painful interlude between two periods of fun, perhaps we should see it as a necessary attribute of human life that children should be introduced to as early as possible and adults should stick with as late as possible.”

    We’ve had this discussion before. I think such a perception is Utopian delusion. If people are given a chance to have the things that money earned by working would have bought them without their having to work for them, there’s not a rational man or woman who wouldn’t jump at the chance. Only one’s ethical or religious upbringing would impose a “joy or value of working” ethos on a normal human being. We are rapidly divesting of all the vectors for imparting that work ethic. The government gives the unproductive the cars and big screen tvs and air conditioners they would have otherwise had to work for. So let’s stop kidding ourselves. Work is the painful interlude between two periods of play for those of us who aren’t on the government dole – for the present. Eventually we’ll all be on the dole when the Government nationalizes everything and uses illegal immigrants to do the actual work.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service