The Surprising Benefits of Continuing to Work

More and more evidence suggests that retirement is not good for you.  It’s not just that we can’t afford it, as pensions and other benefits are cut.  It’s bad for your health.

Slate recently reported on The Longevity Project, a major study that followed participants over eight decades:  “an analysis of the activities and accomplishments of study participants . . . was dramatic. ‘[T]he continually productive men and women lived much longer than their more laid-back comrades. … It was not the happiest or the most relaxed older participants who lived the longest. It was those who were most engaged in pursuing their goals.’” (See, “Don’t Stop Working.”)

This is not completely surprising.  In a world in which work has become our supreme value, being without work marginalizes you and deprives you of the experiences that make you relevant to others – and to yourself.  Work keeps you on your toes, and stretches you to accomplish goals that matter.

This is not to suggest that you stay on at your old job.  Even if you could keep it for as long as you want, it may well be better to try other things that stretch you in new directions.  A new job can help you develop interests and skills neglected earlier in life.  But it’s important to keep busy.

The authors of the study, psychology professors Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, found some other interesting results.  The “best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness—the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person.”  Being happy-go-lucky doesn’t keep you alive.  Moreover, they found, “a dark underside to optimism. When everything is going great, the optimist soars. But when facing life’s difficulties, the optimist can feel defeated by the magnitude of the struggle that’s required.”

One difficulty here, of course, is that it’s not always easy to find work.  Today, particularly, paid employment is in short supply.  And there is considerable competition for the part-time work that is more suitable to the aging.  But if we take into consideration the benefits of work in keeping us healthy, the amount of pay we receive can be less significant.  Volunteer jobs can look more and more attractive.  Community activity can serve many purposes, not just helping others.  Even hobbies offer several extra benefits, especially if they involve working with others.

We decline as we age.  There is no help for that.  But it can be useful to remember that, “as Friedman says, ‘fun can be overrated’ and stress can be unfairly maligned.”  Pessimism and conscientiousness, it turns out, have their own rewards.