Since the 1980s, the combination of increasing lifespan and decreasing birth rates have led to marked demographic changes in most European countries with a larger proportion of older adults above the official retirement age [1
]. As a consequence, politicians in most Western countries have implemented reforms to increase the retirement age in an attempt to balance the increased economic costs of an ageing population [3
]. The most far-reaching pension reform in Europe has occurred in Denmark, where the state pension age has been set to life expectancy minus 14.5 years, meaning that state pension age is expected to increase gradually from 65 years in 2018 to 67 years in 2022 and further to 74.5 years in 2070 [5
]. Such a drastic reform can be considered a large-scale natural experiment involving millions of people and should be closely followed and evaluated.
While the Danish pension reform makes sense from an economic point of view, it should be investigated whether people will be able or willing to work until they reach 74.5 years of age. Calculations conducted by the European Commission [6
] estimate that in 2070 the average age of retirement will be 68, indicating that there will be a large gap between the expected average age of retirement and the state pension age. This gap occurs due to push [7
] and jump [8
] factors. Push refers to involuntary retirement, e.g., due to poor health. Studies indicate that the number of years lived in good health is lagging behind the increase in life expectancy [9
], most probably because chronic health problems increase with age [10
], while individual physical capacity inherently declines with age [11
]. Thus, by increasing the official retirement age, more workers are likely to be pushed out of the labour market. Jump refers to some older workers developing a psychological distance from their work and identifying with non-work roles, i.e., they may find it fulfilling and more important to spend their time with their partner or to be with their grandchildren [12
] or simply enjoy leisure time, travelling, etc. [8
In Denmark, a major challenge exists in narrowing down the discrepancy between the future state pension age and the average age of retirement. This may be achieved by improving health and work ability among those subject to push factors and improving the motivation to work longer among those subject to jump. In this endeavour, the workplace may hold or create a number of opportunities for promoting health and work ability and motivating employees to stay longer. Most studies analysing workplace strategies and practices in relation to older workers use company surveys among employers — instead of employees — as the empirical basis [14
]. However, the employer may see things in a more positive view than what is experienced by the employees. In this study, we analyse how different occupational segments of older employees perceive programmes and opportunity structures offered at the workplaces.
Previous studies have found that there is a social gradient in health; less educated people, often with physically strenuous work, have, on average, a shorter lifespan, fewer years in good health and reduced work ability as compared to higher educated segments of the workforce [16
]. Especially women with short or no education and high physical work demands are vulnerable to be pushed out of the labour market due to poor health [21
]. It is therefore of interest to know whether these differences correspond to differences in programmes and opportunity structures offered at the workplaces. That is, are opportunities at the workplace to prolong working life more prevalent among occupational groups dominated by high as compared to low educated segments of the labour force, or is it more prevalent among older workers with good work ability as compared to older workers with poorer work ability? And what is the role of gender? These research questions have so far been underappreciated.
Therefore, the aim of this paper is to assess opportunities in the workplace for supporting a prolonged working life in different groups of the labour market. The analyses use representative data from Danish workers aged +50 years participating in the SeniorWorkingLife study.
shows the descriptive background information of the population divided by ISCO groups 1–4 and 5–9 and by sex. There were both similarities and differences between the groups. For example, age, lifestyle and weekly work hours were quite similar across the groups, whereas work-related physical activity and the proportion of workers with reduced work ability were much higher among ISCO groups 5–9 than groups 1–4.
shows a colour-intensity map of opportunities at the workplace in the nine separate ISCO groups. The most common opportunities were more vacation, reduction of working hours, flexible work hours, access to treatments (e.g., physical therapy, psychologist), further education and physical exercise. However, the overall picture based on the colour-intensity map shows that ISCO groups 5–9 (mainly physical work and shorter education) in general, have poorer access to these than ISCO groups 1–4 (mainly seated work and longer education).
and Table 3
, respectively, show the prevalence (percentage) and odds ratios (ORs) of opportunities at the workplace. Table 2
shows that the most widespread opportunities were reduced time, flexible working hours, additional vacation and health promotion; however, the ORs calculations of Table 3
show that these were not equally distributed across groups. Thus, Table 3
shows that ISCO groups 5–9 compared with 1–4 were less likely to have access to 11 out of the 15 different opportunities (ORs ranging from 0.33 to 0.87), and were more likely not to have any of the opportunities at all (OR 1.57). Women compared with men were less likely to have access to 11 out of the 15 opportunities (ORs ranging from 0.51 to 0.83). Individuals with reduced work ability compared with good work ability were less likely to have access to 9 out of the 15 opportunities (ORs ranging from 0.63 to 0.81), and were more likely not to have any of the opportunities at all (OR 1.21). Individuals with reduced work ability were more likely to only have access to 1 out of the 15 opportunities (reduced working hours with financial compensation, OR 1.27).
The main finding of this study is that a clear Matthew effect exists, i.e., those with the greatest needs have the poorest possibilities at the workplace for supporting a long and healthy work-life. That is, those at highest risk of being pushed out of the labour market, i.e., workers in job groups characterized by short education and physical work, as well as those with reduced work ability, had fewer opportunities in general. Opportunities at the workplace targeting mainly the best-off seniors may reduce the numbers of employees being pushed out of the labour market only to a very limited extent, and the challenge of raising the retirement age remains unresolved.
The most widespread opportunities reported were reduced time, flexible working hours, additional vacation and health promotion, but these were not equally distributed across the different segments. Reduced working hours can be one way to reduce the overall workload and thereby reduce the risk of push in workers with high work demands and poor health, which can be especially relevant for many employees in ISCO groups 5–9. However, only about 19–20% of those in ISCO groups 5–9 (Table 2
) had the opportunity for reduced working hours and even fewer (5–6%) with financial compensation. It should be investigated if a more flexible system with a gradual reduction in working hours with financial compensation could be a cost-beneficial method of prolonging working life, especially among those with high physical work demands. Reduced working hours, more vacation and flexible working hours may also be a way to reduce jump, as more leisure time and freedom to choose may reduce the desire to completely leave the labour market for those in good health, which is the case for many older workers in ISCO groups 1–4.
Opportunities for workplace health promotion and treatment possibilities were also poorer in ISCO groups 5–9 than in groups 1–4. Of the specific workplace health promotion offers, physical exercise was possible only for 10–17% across all ISCO groups (Table 2
). This is surprising, as there is consistent evidence through systematic reviews of positive effects of physical exercise for health [25
], also when performed at the workplace [26
]. Thus, a challenge still exists in communicating this knowledge to workplaces, both those with seated and physical work. National campaigns targeted at workplaces may be a way forward [29
]. Health technology may also be a strategy to promote increased physical activity at the workplace among those with seated work [30
In ISCO groups 1–4 and 5–9, respectively, 23% and 38–40% of the older workers had reduced work ability compared to their lifetime best. Prospective cohort studies with register follow-up show that reduced work ability is a major push factor, markedly increasing the risk of involuntary early retirement [24
]. Thus, opportunities for health promotion and better working conditions are especially important for employees with reduced work ability. The present study shows that the reality in workplaces is the exact opposite, i.e., for 9 out of 15 possibilities (Table 3
) employees with reduced work ability had fewer opportunities (ORs ranging from 0.63 to 0.81) in the workplace to support a prolonged and healthy work-life, i.e., lower access to possibilities such as physical exercise, health checks, healthy diet, flexible working hours and changing job area. Previous studies show that lack of physical exercise, poor musculoskeletal capacity and obesity, as well as high mental and physical work demands, and lack of autonomy increase the risk for poor work ability [32
]. Although causal inferences should be drawn with care, lack of opportunities at the workplace may be part of the reason for the reduced work ability in these employees. Regardless of the direction of causality, providing relevant opportunities at the workplace may be used to assist workers with reduced work ability, and thereby prevent them from being pushed out of the labour market. However, in some cases it may be easier for workplaces to replace than support workers with reduced work ability, especially in job groups characterized by short education. Of all the available opportunities, workers with reduced work ability only had better possibilities for reduced working hours with financial compensation, likely because, in Denmark, compensation for reduced working hours in certain types of jobs (e.g., flex jobs and sheltered jobs) is paid by the municipalities and not by the employer.
Another interesting finding is that men and women do not seem to have equal opportunities. Thus, for 11 out of 15 possibilities (Table 3
) women were offered measures to a lesser extent than men (ORs ranging from 0.51 to 0.86) that may help them prolonging working life. Such differences can be the outcome of a strong horizontal gender division of labour in the Danish labour market, meaning that men and women are positioned in different occupations and subject to different industrial relations regulations. It should also be mentioned that due to jump reasons, women retire earlier than men [8
]. Therefore, if the overall aim is to increase the employment rate among older workers it is important that employers develop measures that meet the needs of women, e.g., measures to improve work–life balance and in general provide more opportunities at the workplace for prolonging working life. At the same time, women with short education and high physical work demands are more likely to be pushed out due to poor health [21
]. This highlights the need for effective workplace policies to ensure a prolonged working life especially for this group of workers.
Strengths and Limitations
This study has both strengths and limitations. Non-response is always a limitation when attempting to produce representative estimates in this type of study. However, to ensure representative estimates, Statistics Denmark drew a probability sample among all eligible Danish residents age 50 years or older and combined this with model-assisted weights based on high-quality national registers. Thus, we can be fairly certain that the estimates are representative of workers in Denmark aged 50 years or older. The ISCO system is used internationally to group occupations containing a number of closely related work functions and is a better predictor of health outcomes than socioeconomic class [23
]. The Danish version of ISCO is based on high-quality registers from Statistics Denmark and is highly reliable. Thus, using ISCO to classify occupations is a strength of the study. Additionally, a lack of knowledge of existing opportunities at the workplace may have also influenced the responses in the present study, highlighting the potential of communicating company policies, and opportunities to the workers. Finally, a follow-up in national registers on labour market attachment in the years to come is necessary to investigate whether the factors included in the present study can actually help to prolong working life.