Journal Article

Inequalities in retirement lifespan in the United States

Shi, J., Dudel, C., Monden, C., van Raalte, A. A.
Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 78:5, 891–901 (2023)
Open Access


Objectives: The length of retirement life may be highly unequal due to persistent and significant discrepancies in old-age mortality. This study assesses gender and educational differences in the average retirement lifespan and the variation in retirement lifespan, taking into account individual labor force exit and re-entry dynamics.
Methods: We used longitudinal data from the Health and Retirement Study from 1996–2016, focusing on respondents aged 50 and above (N = 32,228). Multistate life tables were estimated using discrete-time event history models. The average retirement lifespan, as well as absolute and relative variation in retirement lifespan, were calculated analytically.
Results: Among women, we found a persistent educational gradient in average retirement lifespan over the whole period studied; among men, the relationship between education and retirement expectancy differed across periods. Women and the lower-educated had higher absolute variation in retirement lifespan than men and the higher-educated—yet these relationships were reversed when examined by relative variation.
Discussion: Our multistate approach provides an accurate and comprehensive picture of the retirement lifespan of older Americans over the past two decades. Such findings should be considered in high-level discussions on Social Security. Potential reforms such as raising the eligibility age or cutting benefits may have unexpected implications for different social groups due to their differential impacts on retirement initiation and re-entry dynamics.

Keywords: USA, education, gender, life expectancy, retirement
The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.