Aging and Work: Issues and Implications in a Changing Landscape. Czaja SJ, Sharit J, eds., Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009 Aug; :359-393
The present analyses provide confirmatory evidence of age-related improvements in subjective well-being reported in prior studies of worker samples and extend these effects to health outcomes not previously investigated. The results also build on the limited base of research investigating age differences in exposures to work-related stressors, providing evidence of curvilinear effects favoring both younger and older workers. Finally, our findings provide little support for the vulnerability hypothesis-age differentials in the effects of work organization exposures were largely absent. Taken at face value and in the context of an aging workforce, these findings are encouraging, suggesting that older and younger workers differ little or not at all in risks posed by the organization of work. However, because of study limitations, some caution in interpreting these findings is warranted. As an exploratory study, a substantial number of analyses were undertaken, creating the potential for type 1 error. Also, many of the effects observed, though significant, were not especially strong. Possible sample composition problems resulting in healthy worker effects are perhaps the greatest concern. Although labor force participation rates for older workers have been increasing for two decades, these rates (2005 estimates) still fall dramatically for older workers-dropping from 83 percent for workers aged 25-54, to 63 percent for workers aged 55- 64, and to just 22 percent for workers aged 65-74 (Toosi, 2006). To the extent that declining health contributes to early withdrawal from the labor force, it is possible that the favorable age-health relationships observed here are biased by the presence of a surviving pool of uncharacteristically healthy older workers in the study. Finnish data linking decreased workability to disease and early retirement on disability pension lends support to this possibility (Tuomi et al., 1997b). Healthier older workers may also be more capable of withstanding adverse job exposures, perhaps rating these exposures more favorably and responding less strongly. Such effects could bias the age-exposure trends we observed and contribute to the scarcity of age-exposure interactions in our results. On the other hand, our analyses reveal age-related improvements in subjective well-being, health-related quality of life, and some job exposures that are linear in nature and thus manifest before labor force participation rates begin to decline. Even for the age-exposure relationships that are curvilinear in nature, midlife improvements in job ratings for several exposures are evident during a period (ages 40-50 years) when labor force participation rates are highly stable. Work-family balance begins to improve even earlier. Because of the exploratory nature of this study and uncertainties in interpretation of findings, there is clearly need for further, theory-driven research to investigate the type of effects targeted in the present analyses. However, it is unlikely that much progress can be made in the absence of longitudinal data systems that capture information needed to more reliably chart the health and safety of workers across the life span and to disentangle various factors that might contribute to age-related effects. Notably, this is the primary recommendation of the NRC for research to better under understand health and safety needs of older workers (Wegman and McGee, 2004).