The aim of the present study was to identify through which pathways health influences early retirement. Face-to-face semi-structured interviews with thirty Dutch employees who retired before the age of 65 were conducted. Both poor and good health played a role in early retirement. Poor physical or mental health influenced early retirement through four different pathways, i.e. (a) persons felt unable to work at all due to health problems, (b) poor health resulted in a self-perceived decline in the (future) ability to work, (c) employees were afraid of a further decline in health, (d) or employees with a poor health felt pushed out by their employer, although they themselves did not experience a decline in their ability to work. Good health influenced early retirement, since persons wanted to enjoy life while their health still allowed to do so. The financial opportunity to retire sometimes triggered the influence of poor health on early retirement, and often triggered the influence of good health.
Earlier studies have shown that poor health is a predictor of early retirement . However, it remained largely unclear how poor health influences early retirement. The qualitative nature of the present study allowed us to distinguish different pathways through which poor health influences early retirement. To the knowledge of the authors, the present study is the first study that was able to identify such pathways. Furthermore, the present study identified an additional health-related reason for early retirement, i.e. good health. This is in line with findings from van Solinge and Henkens , who showed that employees with a shorter subjective life expectancy more often intended to retire early than those who expected a longer life span. Our finding that good health, in addition to poor health, influenced early retirement, may partially explain why some previous quantitative studies did not find a significant relationship between health and early retirement .
In agreement with earlier studies, we found that the financial situation of the household and the opportunity to make use of various retirement schemes or financial arrangements played a role in early retirement . The importance of financial factors differed between the different pathways. The financial opportunity to retire sometimes triggered the influence of poor health on early retirement, and often triggered the influence of good health on early retirement. At the time the interviews were conducted, early retirement schemes were highly accessible in the Netherlands. Leaving the labour market before the statutory retirement age was even described as an offer employees could not refuse . Since these favorable arrangements will disappear in the near future, the financial opportunities to retire early will decline as well. This might affect the pathways via which health influences early retirement, and the proportion of employees in which it does so. For example, persons who experience they are not able to work due to ‘poor health’ may no longer retire early, but may receive disability pensions, or, if not eligible for this, may become unemployed. Persons who are afraid of a further decline in health may get more health problems. Furthermore, good health might still be a reason to retire early, but in a smaller proportion of the employees who can financially afford to retire early.
The relationship between health and early retirement seems to be in line with the person-job-fit approach . This approach assumes that there needs to be a ‘fit’ between a person and his job to feel healthy, to enjoy work and to perform well in the job. Edwards distinguished two types of fit: demands-abilities fit and need-supply fit . Demands-abilities fit exists if the demands of the job match with someone’s abilities. Need-supply fit exists if attitude and motivation of an employee match with the work context. Accordingly, in the present study poor health influenced early retirement due to a misfit between the job demands and the (perceived future) ability to perform the working tasks, without worsening health problems. Good health influenced early retirement due to a misfit between what people wanted to do in their lives while being in good health, and what they expected to be able to do while working.
Employers and employees barely discussed the ‘person-job-misfit’. This could be illustrated by the fact that employees who retired early due to a self-perceived (future) decline in their ability to work or fear of a further decline in health, did not discuss these perceptions or anxieties with their employer. Similarly, employers who pushed employees with poor health out of work did not discuss their plans from an earlier phase onwards. A dialogue between employees and employers and measures directed to the prevention of (future) misfits might be helpful to prolong working life in good health and with good work ability. The different pathways by which health influences early retirement suggest that these measures need to be tailored to the individual. For example, it could be hypothesized that the 63-year old job coach, who retired early since he experienced a decline in his ability to work, could have continued working if he had received other responsibilities than “to pump people up”. Besides, it could be hypothesized that the 62-year old math teacher might have continued working if flexible working hours would have enabled him to enjoy the things he liked outside of work. We recommend future research to investigate why this dialogue between employers and employees is often lacking and what an effective dialogue should include.
A major strength of the present study is the qualitative design, which allowed us to explore how health influences early retirement. Another strength of the present study is that we conducted interviews with persons who had retired early, or already formally arranged to do so within six months after the interview, instead of persons who only intended to retire early. Hence, we studied early retirement behavior. Previous studies often investigated the intention to retire early [7, 22, 23] or continue working , but factors that influence the intention to retire early may differ from those that influence actual early retirement .
However, this study also has limitations. First, in qualitative studies the researcher is an important instrument, both in data collection and data analysis . This may have influenced our findings. Therefore, analysis of the interviews was predominantly done by two persons. Moreover, to enhance robustness of the findings, main results were discussed with other co-authors as well. Second, during the interviews, persons looked back at their transition from work to early retirement. There is a risk of recall-bias and to transformation of the ‘real’ story, since persons may not remember facts correctly or may be influenced by psychological processes, such as cognitive dissonance. The interviewer used in-depth follow-up questions to validate the answers of the interviewees. Moreover, to prevent bias of our results we checked for inconsistencies in the stories and interpreted these parts with caution. Third, we only studied the role of health in early retirement in persons who retired early. Hence, we have no insight in the role of health among persons who had the opportunity to retire early, but continued working. To further establish the role of health, we recommend future research to investigate how health influences the prolongation of working life. Furthermore, it should be noted that we only found evidence of five different pathways from health to early retirement in the present study. Future studies should replicate this finding and may reveal additional pathways. Finally, the present study focused on the influence of health on early retirement. It is important to keep in mind that other factors (e.g. financial situation) play an important role in early retirement as well.