As most of us have heard by now, the Australian population is ageing. In 25 years we will have 6.2 million Australians aged 65 and over, and there will only be 2.5 people of traditional working age (15-64) to support every person over 65. Written by Dr Miri Forbes
This shift in population structure will cause a big problem for our economy, and it means we need to change the way we deal with work and retirement. The current line of thought goes: If Australians work later in life, it will ease some economic pressure and maintain our productivity.

This is why we’re seeing new laws that increase the age we can access the aged pension and our superannuation. The government is pushing for people to work later in life, and as a result we are on track to have the oldest retirement age in the developed world by 2035. These changes are economically driven, but we don’t have a good understanding of how working later in life will affect Australians’ wellbeing. Will it benefit the economy at the cost of our workers?

My colleagues and I wanted to understand how working later in life is related to mental health and wellbeing for Australians over our average retirement age of 60. I expected that people working full time would be under significant stress and would report poorer wellbeing, compared to people who were working less —say working part time or retired.

Miriam Forbes

Dr Miriam Forbes

Here is what we found in a nationally representative sample of Australians (The 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing). People working part time consistently had the best quality of life, felt less distressed, and reported lower rates of depression and anxiety, compared to people who were retired or working full time. Also, older Australians working full time were no better or worse-off than people who were fully retired. These effects were found for older workers aged up to 80, for men and women, and regardless of whether or not people were physically healthy, married, or experiencing financial stress.

Not quite what I expected, but it makes sense. People working part time can have a good balance. They get to keep the financial stability, sense of purpose, social life, and support networks that work provides. They are also released from some of the pressures of full time work, and may have time to pursue other interests and activities. It seems like part time work combines the positives of full time work and retirement, and avoids the negatives.

One caveat is we know control over our lives is vital to wellbeing. We don’t know whether the people in our study were working or retired by choice. We would not expect to see great wellbeing in older Australians who need to keep working to support themselves financially.

On the whole, it seems that working part time later in life is a good way to maintain positive wellbeing. Happily, this would also help maintain a productive workforce in our ageing population. Everybody, including the Government and people who have the freedom to choose their work status, wins.

Dr Miriam Forbes is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health.

The Centre for Emotional Health is looking people aged 60+ who are interested in participating in mental health research. To get involved or find out more, contact Miri on (02) 9850 9163 or