1: Job Transitions in Older Age in an Era of Neoliberal Responsibilisation

This chapter sets the context for the book. Drawing on the governmentality perspective, it argues that job transitions in older age must be understood in the context of a wider trend of ‘neoliberal responsibilisation’. It becomes the responsibility of individuals to be ‘active’, entrepreneurial individuals and take whatever paid work opportunities are available to them until they are in a financial position to retire. Jobs held by older individuals are not always sustainable in the long term and the need to change jobs in order to continue working therefore becomes even more important. Examining the situation across 16 OECD countries, the chapter explores welfare and pension changes that increase the need for continued employment, alongside OECD statistics on changes in job transitions between 2000 and 2019.


In 2011 the European Commission made the following announcement:

The European Commission today issued a White Paper on pensions. It puts forward policy initiatives to support Member States in the reform of their pension systems. The measures proposed by the White Paper aim to help people who are able to work longer and save more for their retirement. They aim to raise the average age at which people retire, reflecting the rising life expectancy, to encourage complementary private retirement savings. (European Commission, 2011)

This White Paper reflected a trend that was already evident in Member States, a trend that would only intensify in the following decade. The language in such policy documents is of helping people to continue working. However, a recent policy review has concluded that in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries the emphasis is on making older people take personal financial responsibility for themselves, rather than being supported to work longer should they wish to do so (Street and Ní Léime, 2020). The financial need to do paid work is increasing, due to rising state pension ages and reduced/restricted access to early retirement options and disability and unemployment benefits in many countries. Likewise, the role of the state in delivering retirement incomes is declining, with the private sector taking a more significant pensions role and inequalities likely to rise as a result.

The progressive shift from defined benefit to defined contribution occupational pensions in the UK and other countries has been a profound change (Lain, 2016). In such schemes the individual, not an employer, now bears the risk that the money invested on their behalf results in a sizable pension pot when they retire. Predicting what this means in reality is difficult given that individuals cannot know how far this money will stretch. The experience of COVID-19 in the UK illustrates how exposed people are to risk and the inequalities that emerge as a result. Survey evidence from the relatively early stages of the pandemic suggested that 13 per cent of older workers expected to change their retirement plans, with those experiencing a reduction in their pension wealth being more likely to work longer, and those in richer households being more likely to retire earlier (Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2020).

Despite financial pressures to extend working lives, policies to actively support older people to work longer are meagre (Ní Léime et al 2020). As we shall argue in this chapter, this reflects a wider trend of increasing ‘neoliberal responsibilisation’, whereby it becomes the responsibility of individuals to become ‘active’, entrepreneurial individuals and take whatever opportunities are available to them to work until they are in a financial position to retire. Jobs held by older individuals are not always sustainable in the long term, due to unemployment, work intensification or changing levels of health, and the need to change jobs in order to continue working arguably therefore becomes even more important (Lain, 2016).

In this context we have seen a rise in employment of older people across OECD countries, partially reversing a trend towards earlier exit occurring since the 1970s (for a discussion on the historical and policy context see Chapter 2). Researchers following a rational choice perspective have sought to explain rising employment as relating to changing financial incentives made available in the institutional environment (Ebbinghaus and Hofäcker, 2013). The argument is that people have to work for longer because they cannot afford to retire. Nevertheless, it remains the case that significant numbers of both men and women are out of the labour market before state pension age. In this context, there has been a burgeoning academic literature on the factors that encourage or inhibit longer working lives and the conditions required to retain older workers. Much of this literature is quantitative and explores the factors influencing employment (or anticipated employment) in older age including: health, wealth, motivations, domestic circumstances, caring responsibilities, line manager attitudes and behaviours, and work-related/human resource management factors (see Hasselhorn and Apt, 2015 for a review). However, relatively little attention is placed on the role of job changes as a means of extending working lives in European countries (Hasselhorn and Apt, 2015; Hilsen and Midtsundstad, 2015; Lain, 2016).

There is a literature on so-called ‘bridge jobs’, and this seems to suggest that people change their working arrangements in the build-up to retirement. This literature is predominantly related to the US context, although the term ‘bridge jobs’ is growing in usage in the European context and is often used to identify a wide range of different changes in employment in older age. An exception is Brunello and Langella (2013) which examined individuals moving from a full-time job with ten plus years of tenure to a new job after age 50 in a range of EU countries. They concluded that such moves were less common in the EU countries covered than in the United States. However, the analysis is not presented at a country level, and it only covers the period up to 2008, prior to some of the country-level policy changes to extend working lives. Furthermore, given the nature of the research design, it does not capture the experiences of individuals making such transitions.

More fundamentally, as we argue in the final chapter in more depth, the concept of bridge jobs is not very helpful for understanding job transitions in older age. By variously labelling a diverse range of transitions that occur in later life as ‘bridge jobs/employment’ – including transitions between and within firms and fluctuations in working time – it tends to obscure more than it reveals (for a sympathetic review of this literature see Wang et al 2014; for a more critical assessment see Earl and Taylor, 2017; Lassen and Vrangbæk, 2021). The bridge employment literature also arguably fails to address why people make transitions, or how they are experienced, because it is under-theorized and lacks qualitative inquiry (see Chapter 9).

In order to partially remedy this gap in the literature, this book draws on the lived, and thus far often overlooked, experiences of older individuals attempting to make job-related transitions in Ireland, the UK, Belgium, Italy, Germany and Sweden. In doing so, it focuses on an oft repeated but rarely amplified point that older workers are not a homogeneous group and that the individualization of retirement has led to an increasingly diverse range of later life working trajectories (Vickerstaff and Cox, 2005). In this chapter we set the context. We first outline our arguments about extended working lives policies in an era of neoliberal responsibilisation, and why this increases the potential importance of job transitions as a means of continuing in employment. We then add some empirical substance to this by presenting statistics on changes in job transitions between 2000 and 2019 across a range of countries. This helps set the context for the later chapters in this book that draw on qualitative research.

Extending working lives in an era of neoliberal responsibilisation

Rising pension ages, a reduction in state support for older people and the promotion of private sector alternatives is often presented uncritically in the literature, as if the way in which these changes have been enacted are almost inevitable. The proportion of older people in OECD countries will increase over the coming years, as a result of the large baby boomer generation reaching retirement age, declining birth rates and increased life expectancy. There are a number of alternative approaches to dealing with these demographic changes, but as Macnicol (2015) argues, these more progressive options are usually sidelined as countries seek to implement the neoliberal proposals advocated by international organizations such as the World Bank and OECD. Macnicol (2015), writing from the UK context, has argued that much of the demographic change is a consequence of large birth cohorts reaching retirement age, rather than large increases in longevity. As a result, there are a range of ways in which the UK could seek to address these, partly temporary, peaks in the number of older people. These do not all involve large state pension age increases or a further withdrawal of financial support for older people. The fact that these options have been dismissed without much consideration reflects a wider political trend towards neoliberalism. Street and Ní Léime (2020, p 87) make a similar point:

the neoliberalist political agenda in many countries has foreclosed progressive action [with regards to extended working lives]. The transcendence of neoliberalist tendencies in most countries’ political economies has instead seen governments committed to reining in public sector spending, even if it means dismantling traditional social insurance and safety net programmes. This is consistent with beliefs about the limits on state intervention typical of the neoliberal turn and has contributed to tax cuts and deregulation, stagnant wages, struggling national labour markets, austerity and a departure from universalist social policies, all culminating in increased income inequality and insecurity for individuals. It is no surprise that the main idea gaining the most traction and dominating international policy circles is the ‘live longer, work longer’ solution.

In response to this, according to these authors, ‘in most places, governments have … shifted more responsibility for ensuring retirement income away from governments onto individuals’ (Street and Ní Léime, 2020, p 96). According to Krekula and Vickerstaff (2020), the ‘neoliberal discourse [is one] of helping individuals to help themselves’, which inevitably means working longer in most cases. However, as Street and Ní Léime (2020: 94) point out, there is little ‘evidence that governments have enacted effective policies that enhance older individuals’ employability’.

In order to make sense of what this might mean for job transitions in older age, it is useful to place these trends in a wider context of ‘neoliberal responsibilisation’, which draws on Foucault’s (1991; 2008) governmentality perspective (Pyysiäinen et al 2017; Laliberte Rudman and Aldrich, 2021). According to Lemke (2001, p 203) ‘neo-liberalism is a political rationality that tries to render the social domain economic and to link a reduction in (welfare) state services and security systems to the increasing call for “personal responsibility” and “self-care”’. Rose (1999) plots the rise of neoliberalism to ideas circulating in reaction to the ‘social state’ in the post-war period in countries such as the UK and the US, and the subsequent election of the Thatcher government in the UK in 1979. Rose (1999) argues that neoliberalism is not simply a form of laissez-faire politics in which the state withdraws from governing. Instead, the role of government is to provide a framework under which the market can succeed. This required ‘governing at a distance’ – rather than ruling by diktat. The important point was to get individuals to govern themselves by taking responsibility for themselves: ‘To govern better, the state must govern less; to optimize the economy, one must govern through the entrepreneurship of autonomous actors – individuals and families, firms and corporations. Once responsibilized and entrepreneurialized, they would govern themselves within a state secured framework of law and order’ (Rose, 1999, p 139). Within this literature, it is often proposed that attempts to persuade individuals to take personal responsibility for themselves are based on an ‘appeal of increased personal freedom’ (Pyysiäinen et al 2017, p 217). In the field of extended working lives, for example, state pension ages might be increasing. However, with the expansion of age discrimination legislation across Europe, extended working lives are presented as an opportunity for people to take advantage of, as self-actualizing, autonomous individuals.

At an EU policy level, this trend is perhaps best manifested by the shift towards promoting ‘active ageing’. Moulaert and Biggs (2013, p 28) argue that ‘active ageing’ has become a central concept in EU policy making since the late 1990s; this is based on the assumption that people should ‘be able to be able to lead a productive life and to be free to make personal choices’. The concept therefore rests on the idea of promoting autonomy and self-reliance as self-evident virtues, as this European Commission statement from 1999 cited by Moulaert and Biggs (2013, p 30) demonstrates: ‘Preparing for longer, more active and better lives, working longer, retiring more gradually and seizing opportunities for active contributions after retirement are the best ways to secure the maximum degree of self-reliance and self-determination throughout old age.’ Active ageing takes a broad definition of activity in people’s lives, but Moulaert and Biggs (2013) argue that it did not take long for an ‘economic version’ of active ageing to dominate at a policy level, as reflected in this European Commission statement from 2011:

We need to enable older people to make their contribution to society, to rely more on themselves and to depend less on others and for this we need to create conditions that allow people to stay active as they grow older. ‘Active Ageing’ promises to be such an approach because it seeks to help older people to: remain longer in the labour market; contribute to society as volunteers and carers; remain as autonomous as possible for longer. (Cited in Moulaert and Biggs, 2013, p 31)

There is very little in the European Commission active ageing initiative to ensure older workers are supported in working longer, beyond the publication of very general recommendations – for example, access to good working conditions, training and so on (see European Commission, 2012). Perhaps the most relevant wider development at an EU policy level, however, has been the EU Directive on Equal Treatment in Employment and Occupation (Council Directive 2000/78/EC). This included age as a protected characteristic for the first time, and mandated members to introduce legislation to protect people from discrimination in relation to recruitment, training and working conditions. It did not, however, preclude countries from permitting the use of mandatory retirement ages by employers, and only the UK, Denmark and Poland have abolished them (OECD, 2017, p 66). In a range of other countries, allowable mandatory retirement ages have been significantly increased, however, to 67 in Finland, 68 in Sweden, 70 in Iceland, France and Portugal, and 72 in Norway.

Arguably the greatest impact of age discrimination legislation has been giving individuals the theoretical right to continue working up to, and often beyond, state pension age. In countries such as the UK and the US, where mandatory retirement ages have been abolished entirely, retiring at any age therefore becomes a theoretical choice that people can be held accountable for. In the UK and US there is little concrete evidence that it has increased recruitment of older people (Lain, 2016). Furthermore, recent survey research on employers in nine European countries suggests that despite age discrimination legislation employers remained less likely to favour employing an individual once they were in their 50s (Lössbroek et al 2021). Wider evidence from a range of countries suggests that older people are still assumed by employers to be ‘less productive, more resistant to change, less open to training and development opportunities, less competent, more costly and more prone to illness’ (Conway and Monks 2017, p 587). In this context, older people are known to find it more difficult than younger people to find a job if they become unemployed (Lain, 2016). Age discrimination legislation is therefore arguably more significant as a means of promoting the idea that employment is an individual choice available to older people, than a form of support for those seeking work. Correspondingly, the Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into older people and employment reported that while ‘the Government told us that the Equality Act 2010 provided “strong protection” against [age] discrimination and was working as intended. … Our [expert] witnesses disagreed’ (Women and Equalities Committee, 2018, para 23).

In a context where there is little actual active support for people to continue working, policy approaches to extending working lives have focused on restricting access to pensions and other forms of benefit (see later). The question, therefore, is how do individuals respond to neoliberal responsibilisation in the form of pressures to work longer when there are relatively few support structures in place to do so? The assumption in the governmentality literature is that the intention of policy is to get individuals ‘to see themselves as responsible for their own fate, to actively assume responsibility for outcomes in relevant areas of their lives’ (Pyysiäinen et al 2017, p 216). As ‘appeals to freedom’ are often part of this, it might imply that individuals come to see themselves as enterprising, autonomous individuals and embrace ideas associated with active ageing and working longer. From a job transitions perspective, it might mean that they enthusiastically seek out and exploit new employment opportunities. Some individuals, perhaps those in more privileged positions, might embrace the appeals to freedom and this notion of themselves as autonomous individuals choosing to work longer. However, Pyysiäinen et al (2017) argue that another possible response is ‘psychological reactance’, whereby in this case the individual attributes pressures to work longer as being beyond their control. However, at the same time they nevertheless seek to exert and retain some control over the situation by assuming responsibility by becoming more ‘realistic’ about the options (Laliberte Rudman and Aldrich, 2021). This could mean, for example, continuing to seek out employment opportunities despite the challenges but scaling back aspirations and expectations. As Pyysiäinen et al (2017, p 230) argue, ‘even if autonomy and controllability in one’s action situation would appear very limited … one could still persistently continue to use one’s actions as means to “fight back” and to prevent losing even the last remains of one’s personal control over the situation’.

This does not imply that individuals in this situation are not anxious about their prospects for extended working lives; indeed we might expect what Lain et al (2019) refer to as ‘ontological precarity’ anxieties about the future among older workers to be fairly widespread. This could mean that those in employment may be reluctant to try to move into new work, for example, because they worry about their prospects in the wider labour market in the context of pressures to work longer. On the other hand, for those in particularly challenging employment situations (for example, where their paid work has ended or is ending) we should not assume that they necessarily respond with complete passivity; anxiety may prompt people to act. It is suggested that this process of ‘psychological reactance’ is key to understanding how people will increasingly react to financial pressures to work longer in the context of ‘neoliberal responsibilisation’. They will progressively assume responsibility for their own job transitions as a means of extending their working lives in order to try to regain control in an uncertain context.

It should also be noted that we are not arguing that countries have all arrived at identical states or degrees of ‘neoliberal responsibilisation’. Countries inevitably ‘started’ from different positions with regard to welfare provision and labour market institutions in the early 2000s, and differences between countries are unlikely to completely disappear over such a period. We might more fruitfully think of there being a neoliberal trajectory, to use the terminology of Baccaro and Howell (2017), a common path along which countries are headed from various starting points. This ties in with wider arguments that welfare states and labour market institutions are being gradually transformed as a result of incremental change (Streeck and Thelen, 2005), which does not presuppose that they have all arrived at exactly the same destination.

Rising employment under neoliberal responsibilisation

In this changing context employment rates of older people have been rising significantly across a range of OECD countries that are characterized as belonging to very different types of ‘welfare capitalism’ in the past. These welfare state regime country groupings, influenced by the work of Esping-Andersen (1990) and Hall and Soskice (2001) are commonly used in comparative research (see, for example, Amable, 2003; Ebbinghaus, 2006; Buchholz et al 2011). Before looking at the rising rates of employment, it is therefore useful to set the context by looking at the earlier predictions of Buchholz et al (2011) and Ebbinghaus (2006):

  • Liberal forms of welfare capitalism are said to be found in developed English-speaking countries, including the United Kingdom and Ireland and the United States and Australia. These countries are said to have ungenerous welfare states, comparatively flexible labour markets, weak trade unions and relatively insecure employment. Early retirement was said to be relatively low in the past compared with ‘conservative’ countries (Ebbinghaus, 2006). Buchholz et al (2011, p 25) predicted a tendency towards late employment in these countries, albeit of an increasingly insecure nature (presumably with significant job transitions).

  • Conservative welfare regimes are said to be found in continental European countries, represented here by Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and France. These countries are said to have relatively rigid regulated labour markets, where trade unions play a significant role and movement between occupations is constrained by the importance of occupational certificates and age discrimination in education. These countries are said to have comparatively generous social insurance benefits, including pensions, based on the principle of status maintenance (replacing earnings at relatively high levels, but with little redistribution). In these countries Buchholz et al (2011, p 25) predicted a ‘strong trend towards early exit’, and Ebbinghaus (2006) predicted that early retirement would be hard to reverse.

  • Fragmented welfare regimes were said to be found in Mediterranean countries, represented here by Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece. Labour markets within these countries were seen as relatively rigid and regulated for those employed permanently in large firms, with a significant number also on the periphery in more temporary work. Welfare states are fragmented, generous in relation to pensions but less developed with regard to other areas of protection and disproportionately of benefit to those working in permanent jobs in large firms. Female employment is said to be relatively low because caring responsibilities fall on women in the context of weak state support. Buchholz et al (2011, p 25) predicted early retirement among those in protected employment, and longer working lives for the self-employed and those in informal forms of employment.

  • Social democratic welfare regimes include Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland. Labour markets are seen as less regulated than in conservative welfare regimes, but there is a high level of coordination between trade unions and employers’ federations. Welfare provision is said to be universal, generous and redistributive, with a focus on gender equality, lifelong learning and full employment. Buchholz et al (2011, p 25) anticipated that there would be trends towards late employment in older age, but this employment would be relatively long and stable compared with liberal countries such as the UK and Ireland.

Table 1.1 shows that while countries have different starting points in 2000, partly in line with the arguments of Buchholz et al (2011) and Ebbinghaus (2006), there have been significant increases in the employment rates of countries in all types of welfare regimes in contrast to some of the aforementioned predictions.

Table 1.1:

Employment rates at age 55–64 by sex, 2000–19

All Men Women
2000 2010 2019 2000 2010 2019 2000 2010 2019
Liberal Australia 46.1 60.6 64.5 57.6 68.6 70.3 34.2 52.7 59.0
Ireland 45.9 50.4 62.9 64.4 57.8 70.9 27.4 43.0 55.0
United Kingdom 50.8 56.9 66.2 60.0 64.8 71.0 41.8 49.2 61.5
United States 57.8 60.3 63.7 65.7 64.4 69.8 50.6 56.4 58.0
Conservative Belgium 26.3 37.3 52.1 36.4 45.6 57.3 16.6 29.2 47.0
France 29.9 39.8 53.0 34.1 42.4 55.4 26.0 37.3 50.9
Germany 37.6 57.7 72.7 46.4 65.0 77.1 29.0 50.5 68.4
Netherlands 37.6 53.2 69.7 49.7 63.5 78.3 25.5 42.8 61.2
Fragmented Greece 39.0 42.4 43.2 55.2 56.5 56.1 24.3 29.1 31.6
Italy 27.7 36.5 54.3 40.9 47.6 64.6 15.3 26.1 44.6
Portugal 50.8 49.5 60.4 62.2 55.8 66.5 40.9 43.8 55.1
Spain 37.0 43.5 53.8 55.2 54.5 61.1 20.1 33.1 46.9
Social democratic Denmark 55.9 55.8 71.8 64.4 61.0 76.2 46.7 50.7 67.5
Finland 42.3 56.3 66.8 43.7 55.6 64.8 40.9 56.9 68.6
Norway 65.2 68.6 72.8 71.4 72.2 76.8 58.9 65.0 68.7
Sweden 65.1 70.6 77.9 67.7 74.2 80.0 62.4 67.0 75.7
Country average 44.7 52.5 62.9 54.7 59.3 68.5 35.0 45.8 57.5

Note: Countries in bold are those covered in the later country-specific chapters.

Source: data extracted from www.oecd.org/employment/database

Overall, in 2000 the average employment rate for those aged 55 to 64 across the countries examined was below half, at around 45 per cent. There was, however, quite a variety between countries, ranging from 26.3 per cent in Belgium and 27.7 per cent in Italy, to around 50 per cent in Ireland and the United Kingdom, and 65 per cent in Sweden. Nevertheless, it is clear that in all of the countries a significant number of people in this age range were not in paid employment. Some patterns emerged with regard to employment rates based on country clusters, as might be expected following the arguments of Ebbinghaus (2006) discussed earlier. Employment rates were typically lowest in conservative and fragmented countries and highest in social democratic countries (and, to a lesser degree, liberal countries). However, there was significant variation within country clusters. Of the countries examined in this volume, Ireland and the UK had relatively low non-employment rates compared with their liberal counterpart, the US. Likewise, employment in Belgium and Italy was comparatively low compared with other countries in their respective clusters (at 26/27 per cent). In Germany employment was below the country average (at around 38 per cent), but nevertheless higher than in Belgium, another conservative country. Employment in Sweden was comparatively high (at 65 per cent) compared with social democratic Finland.

While there was some variation in employment rates in 2000, all the countries saw an increase in employment in the period up to 2019, partially reversing the long-term trend towards early exit since the 1970s. Overall, the country average employment rates rose from 45 per cent to 63 per cent over this period. In all but one country more than half the population was working in 2019, the exception being Greece which of course experienced significant financial difficulties in this period. In the UK, a country experiencing particularly strong neoliberal responsibilisation, employment rates had increased to such an extent that they surpassed that of the US (rising to 66 per cent). Likewise, employment in Ireland rose from only 46 per cent in 2000 to 63 per cent over that period, roughly equivalent to that of the US.

In conservative countries there was likewise a consistent increase, but lower overall rates in 2019 in Belgium and France compared with Germany and the Netherlands. This, in part, reflects lower initial employment in Belgium and France in 2000, but it is noteworthy that employment nevertheless rose particularly significantly in Germany, rising to 73 per cent in 2019 – higher than any of the liberal countries, contrary to the expectations of Buchholz et al (2011) and Ebbinghaus (2006). The explanation given by Ebbinghaus and Hofäcker (2013) for the rise in employment in Germany focuses on the reversal of benefit/pension pathways to earlier exit which necessitates employment, rather than active labour market policies supporting employment of older people.

In the fragmented Mediterranean there were increases in all countries, but considerable variation in employment rates nevertheless remain. In Italy, one of the countries explored in this volume, we see a particularly pronounced rise in employment, from only 28 per cent in 2002 to 54 per cent in 2019. Employment in Portugal stands out as being relatively high in 2019, at 60 per cent, with Greece showing relatively little increase (and this being concentrated among women). As noted earlier, we see some of the highest employment rates in social democratic countries. Interestingly, in Sweden we see a rise from 65 per cent to 78 per cent.

Overall, therefore, we see a rise in employment for those aged 50 plus across the countries examined, albeit from different initial positions in 2000. In each country, this was true for both men and women. In a number of the countries employment rates for women in this age group in 2000 were particularly low, and rose markedly – this includes five of the six countries examined in this volume, that is, Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Germany, and to a lesser degree the UK. In the other country, Sweden, female employment likewise rose markedly over the period, but from a much higher initial level in 2000.

Policy changes and neoliberal responsibilisation

Considering the increase in overall employment across countries, we now explore wider policies to encourage these trends. The primary means by which neoliberal responsibilisation has occurred from a policy perspective is increases in the financial need to work because of a retrenchment in support available for older people. As Ogg and Rašticová (2020, p 1) point out, ‘Perhaps the most visible measure of these policies has been the increase in age of eligibility for pensions.’ Table 1.2 presents a number of changes to state pensions in the period from 2000 to 2018 in each of the countries examined in this book: Ireland, the UK, Belgium, Italy, Germany and Sweden. Results for each country are presented alongside those other countries historically said to belong to the same kind of ‘welfare-state regime’ or version of ‘welfare capitalism’.

Table 1.2:

Changes to state pensions

Normal pension age c. 2009 Normal pension age 2018 Scheduled increases in normal pension age post-2018 Reduced early pension possible in 2018? Gross pension earnings replacement rate based on 2018 rules for someone on average earnings Change in gross replacement rate – 1956 cohort vs 1940 cohort Change in future gross replacement rate – 1996 cohort vs 1940 cohort
Liberal Australia 65 for men; 63.5 for women 65.5 66 in 2019; 67 in 2023 No 30.9 -3.1 -10.8
Ireland 65 66 Originally scheduled to rise to 67 in 2021; 68 in 2028 (rises paused in 2020) No 27.0 6.1 6.1
United Kingdom 65 for men; 60 for women 65.3 66 in 2020; 67 in 2028; 68 by 2046 No 21.7 -4.8 -11.3
United States 66 66.4 67 in 2022 Yes 39.4 -1.7 -2.0
Conservative Belgium 65 65 66 in 2025; 66 in 2030; ultimate projection: 67 Yes 46.8 5.4 -1.9
France 60 63.3 (earlier if long contributions) Ultimate projection: 66 Yes 72.3 -2.1 -5.4
Germany 65 65.5 67 by 2031 Yes 38.7 -4.3 -8.1
Netherlands 65 66 67 in 2021; ultimately: 71.3 No 70.9 -5.3 -9.9
Fragmented Greece 65 (earlier if long contributions) 67 (earlier if long contributions) None scheduled as yet Yes 49.9 -7.9 -16.7
Italy 65 for men; 60 for women 66.6 67 in 2019; ultimately 71.3 Yes 79.5 15.2 4.2
Portugal 65 66.4 Life-expectancy rises; projection: 67.8 Yes 74.4 -0.1 -0.7
Spain 65 65.5 (earlier if long contributions) 67 in 2027 Yes 72.3 -6.3 -23.4
Social democratic Denmark 65 65 67 in 2022; 68 in 2030 No 74.4 -5.5 -6.3
Finland 65 65 Life-expectancy increases; ultimate projection: 67.9 Yes 56.5 0.6 -4.3
Norway 67 67 None scheduled as yet Yes 45.4 -28.3 -31.6
Sweden 65 65 None scheduled as yet Yes 54.1 -0.4 -5.7
Source: authors’ compilation based on OECD Pensions at a Glance, various years

From Table 1.2 we can see that irrespective of the type of welfare state regime, in the majority of countries ‘normal’ state pension ages have already risen during this period, and are set to rise to around 67 in the next few years in most countries. This change has been particularly pronounced in the ‘liberal’ UK, where state pension ages will reach 67 in 2028 with no possibility of accessing a state pension before this age. In Ireland state pension age reached 66 as early as 2014 with no possibility of obtaining an earlier, reduced pension. However, plans to increase state pension age to 67 by 2021 were put on hold in 2020 and made the subject of a pensions commission, due to the political unpopularity of the move (see Chapter 8).

In a number of countries individuals can obtain a reduced pension earlier (see Table 1.2), but as ‘normal’ state pension ages rise countries are increasing the early age of receipt or reducing the generosity of early pensions accordingly. The trend towards later pension ages therefore affects countries in all of the four different welfare state regimes. Sweden’s adherence to the ‘normal’ pension age of 65 does not imply a lack of pressures to work longer. The earliest age at which a reduced, early pension can be claimed will rise from 61 to 64 in 2026. Furthermore, the concept of a ‘target age’ of retirement has been introduced as a policy lever, argued to be ‘the necessary average retirement age to make it possible to uphold the economic levels in the pension system’ (Liff and Wikström, 2020, p 6). With a target retirement age projected to reach 69 in 2023, it seems inevitable that the ‘normal’ pension age will be revisited.

In addition to the general trend of having to wait longer to reach normal pension age, the generosity of state pensions is also declining in most countries. Table 1.2 shows the gross future pension ‘earnings replacement rate’ for individuals entering employment in 2018 at age 22; this assumes that these individuals will have average earnings throughout their career and will make all the required pension contributions. This shows that there was considerable variation, not only between countries but within welfare regime types. As we might expect, the lowest replacement rates are typically found in liberal countries, but they range from lows of 21.7 per cent of previous earnings in the UK and 27 per cent in Ireland, to 39.4 per cent in the US. Interestingly, according to these figures, the generosity of the German pension is below that of the US. This might be seen as particularly surprising as Germany was considered one of the countries where in the past early retirement was most entrenched (Ebbinghaus, 2006). Indeed, pensions in Belgium and Germany are significantly less generous than in their conservative counterparts, France and the Netherlands.

Gross replacement rates are typically highest in the Mediterranean fragmented welfare states, ranging from 72.3 per cent of previous earnings in Spain to 79.5 per cent in Italy. The exception to this was Greece which saw significant retrenchment in pensions following the country’s financial crisis. It is important to note that these pensions are not quite as generous as they might appear, however, as they are measured against wages that have a lower buying power than is the average for OECD countries (measured in ‘purchasing power parity’) (OECD, 2019, p 193). Furthermore, due to comparatively low female employment rates across the life course, couples may be heavily reliant upon the man’s pension. For these reasons, high replacement rates in pensions are particularly necessary. In the social democratic countries of Scandinavia we see some variation in pension earnings replacement rates, ranging from a high of 74.4 per cent in Denmark to 45.4 per cent in Norway.

The final two columns of Table 1.2 show the extent to which pensions are becoming less generous (if at all). The penultimate column shows how the replacement rate has changed for individuals born in 1956 (retiring in about 2018) compared with those born around 15 years earlier (born in 1940). In 12 out of the 16 countries pension levels were lower for those retiring in 2018 than they were in the past. These changes ranged from a 0.1 per cent decrease in Portugal to a 28.3 per cent decrease in Norway. Most of the countries experiencing an increase in pension replacement rate had nevertheless also experienced an increase in pension age. Furthermore, projected gross replacement rates for those born in 1996, entering the labour market in about 2018, fell in 14 of the 16 countries (relative to the cohort born in 1940). The dominant trend across this diverse range of countries is the rising state pension ages and declining pension levels.

Of course, pension levels are not the only policy changes of relevance to extended working lives, so it is worth briefly reviewing some of the broader changes. According to Street and Ní Léime’s (2020, p 97) review it has also been the case that ‘recourse to disability and unemployment benefits has been severely restricted in many countries’. Policies to support older workers and their employability have been marginal and access to early retirement pathways has been restricted.

In Ireland, in addition to an increased state pension age noted earlier, a government provided ‘Pre-retirement Allowance’ was discontinued in 2007, which removes the possibility of workers in physically demanding occupations retiring early (Ní Léime et al 2020). In addition, sickness benefits have become more restricted, with a two-year time limit on income replacement benefits for insured individuals (OECD, 2018a). In terms of supporting older workers to work longer, training and lifelong learning programmes provided by the government have been accessible to older workers since 2015, but the focus has been on younger participants with low numbers of older workers participating. In line with other EU countries, age discrimination legislation has been introduced, and since 2015 employers have to justify compulsory retirement age if they have one (Ní Léime et al 2020). However, there are a range of ‘objective justifications’ that employers may use to compel older workers to retire at their contractual retirement age.

The United Kingdom has gone the furthest, compared to the other countries covered in this book, in terms of how far they have gone down the path of neoliberal responsibilisation. State pensions have historically been provided to women before men, at 60 rather than 65; however, pension ages have now been equalized between the genders and are rising rapidly as we saw earlier. Without the possibility of an early reduced state pension, economically inactive older people are dependent upon unemployment and disability benefit provision, which have been reducing in real terms since the early 2010s and subject to a series of punitive sanctions for non-compliance with increasingly strict rules (Taylor, 2017). The main measure introduced to facilitate extended working lives has been the abolition of mandatory retirement ages in 2011. This changing situation has arguably created a sense of anxiety among older people, who worry about their prospects of being able to stay in work long enough to be in a financial position to retire (Lain et al 2019).

In Italy, rising state pension ages have been accompanied by reforms to unemployment and disability benefits which seek to transfer people from the schemes into paid work. For example, Lista di Mobilità was provided for employed people dismissed from their employment. It was, according to OECD (2018b, p 5), ‘the most generous social protection exit scheme in Italy’, albeit one restricted to those working for small employers (Mopact, 2017). In 2012 this allowance was abolished, and a new benefit introduced (Assicurazione Sociale per l’Impiego, or ASPI). This new benefit was time-limited and depended on participation in any active labour market activities offered and could be withdrawn for refusing a job with a salary 20 per cent more generous than the benefit (OECD, 2018b, p 5). In relation to disability benefits, these have been subject to stricter controls since 2009, to reduce access to so-called ‘fake invalid people’ (OECD, 2018b, p 5). While the financial need to work has increased, as Mopact (2017, p 6) state, ‘employment policies and active labour market policies in favour of older workers (in view of an extension of their active life) are still rare’.

Germany has moved from what Ebbinghaus and Hofäcker (2013) describe as an ‘early exit regime’ to being one of ‘early exit reversal’. Older workers can still draw their state pension from the age of 63, but are subject to significant pension deductions. Alongside the changes to pension ages, from a policy perspective increases in employment among older people have been importantly influenced by restricting access to cash benefits. For example, workers aged 57 and older could draw until 2008 on comparatively generous unemployment insurance benefits (sometimes topped up by former employers) for three years with no means test or obligation to search for work or enter activation schemes. The Hartz reforms cut this period for unemployment benefit recipients aged 58 and older to 24 months (Hess, 2016). Subsidies have been introduced to hire older workers, but in terms of policies to support older workers, ‘comparably few improvements were made in the field of education and lifelong learning’ (Hess, 2016, p 157). Interestingly, one form of early retirement was introduced in 2014: ‘Rente mit 63’ (pension at 63 without deductions) with 45 qualifying years, but this option favours especially men with long and uninterrupted work careers.

In Belgium early retirement since the early 1970s had been common following the introduction of the ‘pre-pension system’, the aim of which was to make room for young unemployed people to enter the employment market (Burnay and Vendramin, 2020). The system enabled people who had worked for 40 years to draw a pension from age 58. Access to this system has been increasingly restricted since 2012, and the name changed to ‘unemployment with company supplement’, with older people now required to remain available for work. In addition, a time credit system in place since the mid-2000s, which enabled older people to reduce their working time as a means of extending their working lives, has also been restricted. Burnay and Vendramin (2020, p 157) argue that the time reduction system was merely a transitionary stage ‘between a period of early exit from labour market and a period of extended full-time careers’. In addition, access to disability insurance has been tightened (Burnay and Vendramin, 2020, p 160). In terms of support for working lives, this has arguably been limited to a requirement in 2015 for companies to have a plan to retain older workers, something that is deemed to have negligible impact in real terms (Burnay and Vendramin, 2020, p 158).

In Sweden eligibility conditions for Disability Insurance have tightened considerably since the late 1990s (Palme and Laun, 2018). In 1997 lower medical eligibility requirements were removed for older people and they then had the same job-seeking and mobility requirements as younger people. From 2003 the benefit was no longer automatically provided on a permanent basis, and eligibility would be reassessed every five years. More fundamentally, from 2008 new eligibility rules were introduced which required the individuals to prove that their ability to work had been permanently lost. These changes resulted in a sharp reduction in the number of older people on this programme (Palme and Laun, 2018). Alongside these changes, in 2001 the maximum period for receiving unemployment benefits was cut to 300 days in 2001, and the income replacement rates for these benefits were cut after the first 200 days. After 300 days if individuals are still unemployed they are moved onto what are described as ‘workfare’ programmes by the OECD (2018c).

Job transitions in comparative context

Having outlined the nature of neoliberal responsibilisation, we now set the context for the later chapters that explore the lived experience of older people navigating job transitions. Each of these chapters draws on qualitative research conducted by the authors which has received the appropriate ethical approval. To set this context we conclude this chapter by exploring how job transitions of older people have changed since 2000. The individualization of retirement has meant that people face the possibility or risk of more varied later working life trajectories. Chapter 2 provides a brief history of the influences that shape the transition from work to retirement and the growing precarity that characterizes work-endings. The impact of COVID-19 on older workers’ employment prospects, which is only now beginning to be researched, will have further strengthened the ‘zone of insecurity’ which is later working life.

In order to give an initial impression of the prevalence of job transitions, Table 1.3 shows job tenure for dependent workers aged 55 to 64 in 2000 and 2015. Given the age band used, we can assume that those with less than five years’ job tenure were recruited in their 50s or 60s. Overall, we can see that across the countries covered, the average proportion of workers recruited in older age (50 plus) was similar in both 2000 and 2015 at around 17 to 18 per cent. The rise in employment shown in Table 1.1 was not, therefore, solely about people continuing in long held jobs, and transitions into new jobs must have been part of the equation. Looking at Table 1.3 we can see that in 2015 there were significant variations in the proportions of older recruits between countries, including within country clusters. In conservative and fragmented countries older workers had a relatively low likelihood of having been recruited in older age (with the exception of Greece), with around 70 plus per cent of workers in these countries being in relatively long-term jobs lasting ten plus years. Recruitment into new jobs in older age was relatively high in liberal Australia and the UK, but lower than the country average in Ireland. It is also relatively high in social democratic Denmark and Sweden, but lower than the country average in Finland and Norway, where 15 per cent were recent recruits. Overall, job retention remained the most important route by which older people remained in work in all countries, albeit to varying degrees, which in part reflects the difficulties of changing jobs that individuals face in older age.

Table 1.3:

Job tenure for dependent workers aged 55–64 (percentage breakdown)

2000 2015
Under 5 years 5–10 years 10+ years Total Under 5 years 5–10 years 10+ years Total
Liberal Australia .. .. .. 100% 29.7 20.1 50.3 100%
Ireland 23.3 11.7 65.0 100% 16.5 15.0 68.5 100%
United Kingdom 28.9 17.3 53.9 100% 24.9 18.1 57.0 100%
Conservative Belgium 11.0 9.2 79.8 100% 10.2 11.7 78.1 100%
France 12.7 12.8 74.4 100% 12.8 11.5 75.7 100%
Germany 15.9 14.5 69.6 100% 17.3 12.1 70.6 100%
Netherlands .. .. .. 100% 13.3 13.5 73.2 100%
Fragmented Greece 15.1 8.4 76.4 100% 19.3 9.3 71.4 100%
Italy 12.8 7.7 79.5 100% 12.4 10.2 77.4 100%
Spain 20.5 9.0 70.5 100% 15.8 10.6 73.7 100%
Social democratic Denmark 22.8 12.9 64.3 100% 26.4 19.3 54.3 100%
Finland 14.6 9.9 75.6 100% 17.1 13.0 69.9 100%
Sweden 12.0 10.4 77.6 100% 21.1 13.4 65.5 100%
Norway .. .. .. 100% 15.2 16.2 68.6 100%
Country average 17.2 11.2 71.6 18.0 13.9 68.2
Country average excluding Australia, Norway and Netherlands 17.2 11.2 71.6 17.6 13.1 69.3

Note: ‘..’ indicates that data is unavailable or incomplete.

Source: data extracted from www.oecd.org/employment/database

Job redeployment

Given the importance of job retention to working longer, in Chapter 3 we examine the use of redeployment to a new job and its impact on older workers in a UK local authority seeking to avoid compulsory redundancies in the context of neoliberal austerity. There is no OECD data on the prevalence of job redeployment, but there are reasons to believe that it may be important. In a number of countries, employment protection legislation means that companies are expected to exhaust opportunities for redeployment to a new role before making somebody redundant (OECD, 2020). In other cases, employers facing redundancy pressures may seek to avoid, or more likely reduce, redundancies by redeploying staff to new roles. A survey of around a thousand UK employers in autumn 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic found that 37 per cent of employers were using redeployment as a means of avoiding or reducing redundancy (CIPD, 2020, p 4). Being able to successfully navigate job redeployment may therefore be particularly important in the context of the financial difficulties in the coming years. However, as we see from Chapter 3, older workers may often end up being marginalized in the context of redeployment under neoliberalism. It is furthermore argued that under the conditions of neoliberalism job redeployment is likely to be motivated by the needs of the organization rather than the older worker. This is further examined in Chapter 4, which explores why job mobility among manual workers in an organization in Sweden is not made available to older workers, despite the physical demands of the jobs.

Temporary employment

Moving into temporary employment is another way in which older people seek to extend their working lives, perhaps if other permanent work opportunities are unavailable. In Chapter 5 we explore the experiences of individuals doing temporary work in Belgium. As Table 1.4 shows, temporary employment among those aged 55 to 64 increased in Belgium overall between 2000 and 2019, although this was the result of men rather than women increasingly entering this form of employment. Indeed, overall the country averages show that temporary employment rose for men and declined for women. From the other countries examined in detail in this volume, however, it is clear that increases in temporary employment among older men and women occurred in Ireland and Italy. In 2019 temporary employment rates were comparatively high among older workers in fragmented welfare regimes of southern Europe, and in France. On the other hand, temporary employment was relatively low in the UK and Australia, and actually declined over the period in both countries. It should, however, be noted that in the UK employment protection legislation for those in ‘permanent’ jobs is relatively low (OECD, 2019), so there is less incentive to recruit temporary staff. This is likely to be reflected in the relatively high proportion of UK older workers recruited in the last five years (as per Table 1.3 earlier). Chapter 5 on Belgium shows that the older workers interviewed were taking temporary jobs because they were unable to find permanent positions, but to some degree they internalized and presented narratives about the need to be active.

Table 1.4:

Percentages of dependent workers aged 55–64 that are temporary, 2000 and 2019

All Men Women
2000 2010 2019 2000 2010 2019 2000 2010 2019
Liberal Australia .. 5.0 .. .. 4.9 .. .. 5.1 ..
Ireland 3.1 6.6 6.1 2.1 6.7 6.3 4.9 6.5 6.0
United Kingdom 6.4 5.0 4.4 6.1 4.6 4.1 6.7 5.4 4.6
Conservative Belgium 3.6 2.9 4.3 2.4 1.9 4.4 6.1 4.2 4.1
France 5.7 8.7 9.0 5.4 8.4 8.8 6.0 8.9 9.1
Germany 4.4 4.6 3.0 4.5 4.7 3.0 4.2 4.5 3.1
Netherlands 6.4 6.8 7.1 5.0 6.3 7.1 9.1 7.5 7.1
Fragmented Greece 7.5 7.7 8.5 6.7 6.1 8.4 10.1 11.0 8.7
Italy 6.3 6.1 7.3 6.4 6.6 8.2 6.2 5.4 6.4
Portugal 11.1 9.6 10.2 9.5 9.2 10.6 13.4 10.1 9.8
Spain 13.2 10.2 13.2 12.4 9.4 12.6 15.4 11.4 13.8
Social democratic Denmark 4.4 3.6 3.9 3.7 3.6 3.3 5.4 3.6 4.6
Finland 6.1 7.5 8.3 4.9 7.0 7.1 7.1 7.9 9.2
Norway 3.1 2.4 2.1 2.2 1.9 1.6 4.0 3.0 2.6
Sweden 6.5 6.1 6.9 6.1 4.6 4.1 6.7 5.4 4.6
Country average 6.3 6.2 6.7 5.5 5.7 6.4 7.5 6.7 6.7

Note: ‘..’ indicates that data is unavailable.

Source: data extracted from www.oecd.org/employment/database


Unemployment is another transition that older people may have to navigate their way out of in order to extend their working lives, and Chapter 6 examines the experiences of unemployed people in Italy. Unemployment, of course, fluctuates depending upon the underlying economic circumstances, so looking at unemployment levels in individual isolated years underplays how many older people may be affected at one point in time. Figure 1.1 therefore shows yearly unemployment levels for those aged 55 to 64 between 2000 and 2019. In liberal and fragmented countries we can see significant peaks in employment following the financial crash in 2008. Interestingly, unemployment was lower in Italy than in other fragmented countries for most of this period. In conservative countries, we see modest increases in unemployment overall, comparing 2019 with 2000, with the exception of Germany, where the conditions of receiving unemployment insurance were tightened (Ebbinghaus and Hofäcker, 2013). Finally, in social democratic countries there is some variability in unemployment over the period, with particularly low rates in Norway where older inactive individuals tend to be in receipt of disability rather than unemployment benefits (OECD, 2013).

Figure 1.1:
Figure 1.1:

Unemployment rates among those aged 55–64, 2000–19

Source: data extracted from www.oecd.org/employment/database

Considering the importance of examining long-term trends, Table 1.5 compares the unemployment rate in 2019 between those aged 25 to 54 and those aged 55 to 64. Looking at the country average, we can see that unemployment rates were slightly lower for the older group (5 per cent versus 6 per cent), with the biggest disparity in relation to lower unemployment rates among the older people in Italy, Portugal and Ireland. Generally speaking, countries with high unemployment among the younger group tended to have relatively high unemployment among those aged 55 to 64.

Table 1.5:

Unemployment among those aged 25–54 and 55–64, 2019

Unemployment rate % of unemployed who are long-term unemployed (1+ years)

25 to 54

55 to 64

25 to 54

55 to 64
Liberal Australia 4.0 4.0 24.8 35.2
Ireland 3.9 1.0 .. ..
United Kingdom 2.9 2.9 28.6 39.9
United States 3.1 2.6 13.9 18.0
Conservative Belgium 4.8 4.1 46.2 64.7
France 7.5 6.8 38.7 62.1
Germany 3.0 2.7 38.2 55.1
Netherlands 2.6 3.2 32.6 59.6
Fragmented Greece 17.1 13.4 70.3 81.1
Italy 9.8 5.4 58.3 63.3
Portugal 5.7 6.2 .. ..
Spain 12.9 12.6 37.8 57.8
Social democratic Denmark 4.4 2.4 .. ..
Finland 5.1 6.6 21.5 34.8
Sweden 5.3 4.6 14.6 28.6
Norway 3.2 1.6 29.1 52.8
Country average 6.0 5.0 35.0 50.2

Note: ‘..’ indicates that data is unavailable.

Source: data extracted from www.oecd.org/employment/database

While younger people were generally marginally more likely to be unemployed, older people, on the other hand, were likely to find it harder to get another job, consistent with previous research evidence (Lain, 2016). The final two columns of Table 1.4 shows percentages of unemployed individuals who were long-term unemployed in 2019 (that is, for one plus years). As this demonstrates, in all countries older people were more likely to fall into this category, with a country average of 50 per cent of older unemployed individuals being out of work for a year or more, compared with 35 per cent for those in the younger category. Between the countries there was some variation in the proportion of unemployed individuals being out of work for a year or more, with this being particularly high in conservative and fragmented countries and lower in liberal and social democratic countries. The experiences of unemployed older people in Italy discussed in Chapter 6 reflect the difficulties of getting another job in the context of long-term unemployment, but the narratives of interviewees reflected the perceived need to be active and entrepreneurial and take responsibility for managing their work transitions, consistent with a logic of neoliberal responsibilisation.

Working after pension age and transitions into retirement

The final two chapters focus on women and their employment beyond pension age and their expectations regarding the transition to retirement. Chapter 7 explores employment beyond state pension age among women in Germany and the UK. It is not easy to measure this with comparable statistics, because pension ages are rising, but statistics are still collected using fixed age-bands. However, Table 1.6 gives an insight in this regard by showing employment rates at age 65, historically (male) state pension age in many countries, in the period between 2000 and 2019. As this shows, employment among this age group rose among women and men in all the countries except Greece and Portugal, often doubling as a percentage. Despite their historical classification as being different ‘types’ of welfare states/labour markets, employment at age 65 rose significantly for women in both Germany and the UK (from 1.5 per cent to 5.5 per cent in Germany, and from 3.5 per cent to 8.2 per cent in the UK). As the chapter shows, motivations for working were fairly similar between the countries, reflecting a mix of financial need and a desire to be independent. In some cases this reflected a continuation of the job done immediately before pension age, and with policy changes to either abolish or raise mandatory retirement ages in some countries we may expect to see a further rise in this trend.

Table 1.6:

Employment rates at age 65+ by sex, 2000–19

All Men Women
2000 2010 2019 2000 2010 2019 2000 2010 2019
Liberal Australia 6.0 10.6 14.5 9.8 15.2 18.6 3.0 6.8 10.8
Ireland 6.8 8.3 11.2 13.6 13.8 16.5 1.6 3.8 6.6
United Kingdom 5.2 8.1 10.7 7.5 11.0 13.7 3.5 5.8 8.2
United States 12.5 16.2 19.6 7.5 11.0 13.7 3.5 5.8 8.2
Conservative Belgium 1.5 2.0 2.9 2.4 3.2 4.4 0.8 1.2 1.8
France 1.3 1.5 3.3 2.1 2.2 4.5 0.8 1.0 2.4
Germany 2.7 4.0 7.8 4.4 5.7 10.7 1.5 2.7 5.5
Netherlands 3.2 5.7 9.1 5.5 9.1 13.2 1.5 3.0 5.4
Fragmented Greece 5.2 4.0 3.7 8.3 6.3 5.6 2.8 2.1 2.2
Italy 3.2 3.1 5.0 5.8 5.6 7.7 1.5 1.3 2.8
Portugal 18.0 16.5 11.5 25.1 22.2 17.1 13.0 12.4 7.5
Spain 1.6 2.0 2.4 2.5 2.6 3.2 0.9 1.5 1.8
Social democratic Denmark 2.4 6.6 8.6 3.9 10.5 13.2 1.3 3.5 4.6
Finland 3.7 7.8 11.2 6.3 11.0 14.7 1.6 5.0 8.1
Norway 9.4 18.1 10.9 11.9 23.1 12.4 7.1 13.5 9.1
Sweden 10.2 13.3 17.5 14.7 18.4 20.7 6.3 8.3 14.5
Country average 5.8 8.0 9.4 8.2 10.7 11.9 3.2 4.9 6.2
Source: data extracted from www.oecd.org/employment/database

Finally, in Chapter 8 we explore the final work-related transition: from work to retirement, in Ireland. Measuring and comparing retirement transitions across countries is not straightforward, because individuals may leave work for reasons other than retirement – for example, ill health or unemployment – and then define themselves as retired. The OECD measures this using ‘effective retirement ages’, which represents the average age of withdrawal from the labour market for those over age 40 over a five-year period. Table 1.6 shows these statistics for the five-year period leading up to 2000, 2010 and 2018; we have called them ‘effective exit rates’ here to account for the fact that not everybody leaves for the purposes of retirement. While it is not a measure of retirement per se, it is a good measure of exit because it considers employment levels of individuals at younger ages. In the case of women in particular, increases in employment in older age may partly reflect the fact that more women are working at younger ages, rather than because women are working longer. We should, however, bear in mind that the latest data period is from 2013 to 2018, so if long-term trends have continued we would expect additional increases in exit ages to have occurred since then.

As Table 1.7 shows, across the countries as a whole the average age of male and female exit increased by over two years over the period, from 62.1 to 64.5 for men and 61 to 63 for women. Increases in male exit age occurred across all of the countries, with the exception of Greece. As we might expect from earlier analysis, exit ages were relatively high in social democratic countries, at around 66 for men in the later period in Sweden and Norway and 64/65 for women. In conservative and fragmented welfare states exit ages there was obviously a general trend towards working later, but more variability than we might expect from predictions of welfare-state analysts, with comparatively high exit ages in Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal. Female exit ages actually marginally declined in Greece and Spain in the context of an overall increase in employment and relatively high unemployment.

Table 1.7:

Average effective age of exit from work

Men Women
1995–2000 2005–10 2013–18 Change (years) 1995–2000 2005–10 2013–18 Change (years)
Liberal Australia 62.0 64.5 65.3 3.3 59.6 62.7 64.3 4.7
Ireland 65.2 63.0 65.6 0.4 66.0 64.0 64.1 -1.9
United Kingdom 62.5 64.1 64.7 2.2 60.9 61.9 63.6 2.7
United States 64.8 65.6 67.9 3.1 63.7 65.3 66.5 2.9
Conservative Belgium 58.5 60.6 61.6 3.1 57.1 59.0 60.5 3.5
France 59.0 59.3 60.8 1.8 58.6 59.5 60.8 2.2
Germany 61.0 62.0 64.0 3.1 60.3 61.2 63.6 3.4
Netherlands 60.6 62.9 65.2 4.6 58.7 61.4 62.5 3.8
Fragmented Greece 63.2 61.9 61.7 -1.5 62.7 60.3 60.0 -2.7
Italy 60.4 60.6 63.3 2.9 58.4 59.0 61.5 3.0
Portugal 63.5 66.5 68.5 5.0 60.3 64.7 65.4 5.1
Spain 61.6 62.3 62.1 0.5 61.8 63.0 61.3 -0.5
Social democratic

Denmark 63.4 64.0 65.1 1.7 59.8 61.8 62.5 2.8
Finland 60.2 61.7 64.3 4.1 59.8 61.7 63.4 3.6
Sweden 63.7 65.4 66.4 2.7 62.4 63.3 65.4 3.1
Norway 64.0 64.1 66.1 2.1 63.7 63.8 64.1 0.4
Country average 62.1 63.0 64.5 2.4 2.4 62.0 63.1 2.2
Source: data extracted from www.oecd.org/employment/database

In liberal countries, male exit rates increased to around 65 in Australia and the UK, 65.6 in Ireland and almost 68 in the US. Interestingly, the growth in employment for men in Ireland was relatively modest as the exit age was already 65.2 in 2000 (the dip in exit ages in the middle period can be explained by very high unemployment; see Figure 1.1). Female exit ages were also high in 2000, at 66, albeit based on a relatively small proportion of women working at this time; this fell to 64.1 as overall employment levels of older women employment increased. The long-term, relatively late nature of exit in Ireland therefore makes it an interesting country to examine expectations about transitions to retirement among women in work. The chapter compares the experiences of low-paid care workers with better-paid and pensioned teachers. It finds that care workers had much greater expectations about needing to work up to, or even beyond, the state pension age of 66. This highlights the importance of recognizing the inequalities that are set to emerge as pressures for individuals to take financial responsibility for their own transitions to work intensify.

Outline of the book

Having set out recent changes with regard to extended working lives, in Part II we draw on qualitative research on older people’s experiences of trying to navigate different types of transitions – within-organization job redeployment/mobility in the UK and Sweden, temporary employment in Belgium, unemployment in Italy, working beyond typical pension age in Germany and the UK, and expected transitions into retirement in Ireland. However, prior to this, in the next chapter we complete our discussion of the changing context by exploring the wider historical, labour market and policy changes that have shaped the need for extended working lives and job transitions in later life. In Part III we discuss the findings from the empirical chapters in light of the theoretical and policy context outlined in the first two chapters of the book.


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