Columbia Researcher Explores Most Healthy Age to Retire

May 27, 2015

A Columbia University researcher based at the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center is exploring when is the healthiest time for people to retire, in hopes of not only providing a guide for individuals but also a policy map for lawmakers around the world to promote continued employment and to strengthen their economies.

Seven of the University’s eight global centers will play a key role in the research project, said Esteban Calvo, an adjunct research scientist at the Columbia Aging Center and an associate professor of public policy at Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile.

“Without Columbia Global Centers this would simply not be possible,” Calvo said, as they “play a key role in serving as local liaisons connecting us with scholars all over the world.”

He said the project began last year in Chile and will travel to six other centers – Beijing, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Amman, Mumbai and Nairobi – during the next three years to collect data from countries in those regions.

Calvo is the lead researcher on the project - Should I Stay or Should I Go? A Longitudinal and Cross-­national Study of the Effects of Retirement on Health – which recently received support from the President’s Global Innovation Fund. It has also received funding from the Universidad Diego Portales and Chile’s National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development.

The principal investigator on the project is Ursula M. Staudinger, the Robert N. Butler Professor for Sociomedical Sciences and Professor of Psychology and director of the university-wide Columbia Aging Center based at the Mailman School of Public Health. Dr. Staudinger is excited about this new phase of the project.

“The newly funded project will allow us to move the comparative work that Esteban Calvo and I had been doing on the health effects of retirement in the US and Chile to include more countries,” she said. “This enables us to study with more systematicity the societal and policy influences on the link between retirement and health.”

Q – What made you come to understand that the timing of one’s retirement can have positive or negative health outcomes?

Calvo – For many years people have been studying retirement, but basically asking the wrong question: whether retirement is good or bad for your health. We realized this is an odd question to ask about other life stages or life transitions, like adolescence or parenthood. We basically took insights from those other life transitions or life stages and applied them to retirement transitions.

Q – What makes this so relevant?

Calvo – It has a very practical relevance. In the context of an aging society, we need to think innovatively about work, retirement, and health. Retirement ages are increasing, retirement resources are decreasing, and health costs are on the rise. In this context, we need to think about the work to retirement transition in a way it optimizes health at the same time, so people will end up with more money at retirement and end up healthier. We don't want to force people to work or to retire if it makes them unhealthy.

Q – How would you like to see policymakers embrace your findings?

Calvo – Our findings are clear in pointing out that retiring too early is detrimental to health. That’s something policymakers have to keep in mind. They should remove incentives for early retirement and promote opportunities to continue working in good jobs.

Then the next question is what do we do with the retirement age, which is more controversial. It may be too low, but there is some point where you cannot increase it and at the same time achieve any health benefits. I would hope policymakers would take into account what is the optimal age for retirement in different countries. This age can vary from country to country.

Q – Can you describe some of the unintended consequences of certain national retirement policies?

Calvo – For example, mandatory retirement ages we initially meant to open opportunities for younger workers, but we live in a different world and it’s very interesting to me that many countries still have mandatory retirement age and they don’t consider this age discrimination. There are many unintended consequences if people are retiring before what they like, at an age where they can still make a contribution. There are many consequences both for the economy – there is a labor force shortage – but also for individuals, because their health can be deteriorating because of staying at home and not being productive.

Q – How do the centers play an important role in your research efforts?

Calvo – Columbia Global Centers have been a key piece of these projects. They were extremely supportive to launch this project in Chile, they facilitated the connections between our universities in Chile and Columbia University in the United States, and they will continue to play a key role in serving as local liaisons connecting us with scholars all over the world. We want to replicate this study in all the five continents. Without Columbia Global Centers this would simply not be possible.

Q – What else is important to know about all this?

Calvo – We are doing a massive effort of collecting information that will be used to answer questions about retirement and health, but we intend to use this effort as a first step to fostering cross-national research and attempting to answer other relevant questions. We intend to explore intergenerational exchanges, family dynamics, and many other dynamics that could improve the aging process and individuals’ health.

Q – What drew you to this field?

Calvo – We are all aging and it’s something that is easy to relate to. It’s also a topic that connects Chile and the United States. They are both aging nations, facing similar challenges, and they can learn from each other about how to turn these challenges into opportunities for better lives.

Many studies have focused on the dynamics of these kinds of processes, but it’s very hard to focus on the dynamics over time and at the same time incorporate a cross-national perspective. When you have the right contacts – and the Global Centers are key in this task – you can take a global perspective on these dynamics issues.

What we are trying to do with this research is to tap into the questions that have the most relevance for policy makers in every aging society.

—by Jeff Ballinger

Related Links

Click the image below to watch a brief video of Esteban Calvo discussing his research (2:13).

Esteban Calvo will speak on this project and others during a lecture at 11 a.m., Thursday, May 28, titled Policy Exposures And Health Across The Life Course: Evidence From Three Studies On The Effects Of Anti-Tobacco, Unemployment, And Retirement Policies. In addition, he participated in an interview about his research that appears below.