Europeans defying retirement norms and working past the age of 70
While trade unions are mobilising in France to defend retirement at 62, throughout the European Union, men and women are working beyond the age of 65 or even 75. Who are they?
The official statistics draw the average picture of a self-employed man aged between 65 and 69, working rather part-time in the health or social sector.
But this average situation obviously overlooks the nuances from country to country.
In which EU countries do people work beyond the age of 65?
Firstly, it’s worth noting that the employment rate decreases with age. In fact, the figure drops drastically over the age of 65. In 2021, among the Europeans still working were:
46.4 per cent of those aged 60-64;
13.2 per cent of those aged 65-69;
4.9 per cent of those aged 70 to 74;
1.4 per cent of those over 75.
Estonia is one of the countries with the highest employment rate for people aged 65-69 and 70-74, despite a legal retirement age of 64. This is largely driven by the later retirement of Estonian women. When it comes to men, Ireland has the highest employment rate among these two older age groups.
Sweden, on the other hand, has the highest percentage overall of people over 75 who are still working, regardless of their gender. The legal retirement age, between 62 and 65 depending on a person’s employment history, is not much higher than the average in the EU.
However, Sweden’s population is ageing – the country has the highest share of people aged 75 to 79 in the EU – and a succession of policy choices have pushed older people into work, according to a recent report by an international research project called the Joint Programming Initiative More Years, Better Lives.
According to figures provided by Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU, these are mainly men working in education and women working in the health and social care sector.
Who are these over-65s who work?
The data may seem counterintuitive. A Eurostat report indicates that in 2012, nearly 30 per cent of elderly people who were still working declared that they were doing so in order to supplement their income or strengthen their future pension. With that in mind, one might expect to see among those still working late in life a majority of people who have had chaotic or low-income careers.
For instance, women often have more gaps in their careers than men, as well as lower retirement pensions; yet data suggests they do not seek to compensate this by retiring later. With very few exceptions, their employment rate is lower for every age group after 65.
Similarly, it is not people who have had a short education – and who can therefore be expected to have had lower levels of income – who work the longest. Employment rates continue to be higher after age 65 for those with higher levels of education.
How do people aged over 65 work?
For a long time across the EU, the elderly who worked were mainly farmers, foresters or fishermen. This is still the case in Romania, where nearly 56 per cent of the working population over 65 works in this sector, but also in Greece and four other countries, including Ireland, which has a large share of workers over 65 overall.
The health and social services sectors, as well as retail, are now the industries in which those aged 65 and over are most numerous.
However, these activities tend to be gendered. Men and women aged 65 and over do not work in the same sectors, except in Romania. In Estonia, older men work mainly in the manufacturing industry. Older women work mainly in household services.
In Ireland and Sweden, men over 65 work in the agricultural sector, while women work in health and social services.
Seniors working longer, but differently
Although the over-65s continue their careers, this does not mean that they work under the same conditions.
In particular, more of them are self-employed than other working people. Thirty-eight per cent of the 65-74 year-olds are either self-employed workers or independent employers, compared to 13 per cent of the 25-64-year-olds. The proportion of self-employed workers rises to 57 per cent for those over 75. These figures have, however, largely decreased in 20 years.
Adjustments can also be made for workers who have passed the legal retirement age or who are self-employed.
One of the levers widely used by those over 65 is the organisation of working hours. Fifty-nine per cent of workers in this age group work part-time. This rate rises to 75 per cent of those over 75 who are still working.
Disparities between countries are significant, from the Netherlands, where 83 per cent of the over-65s benefit from flexible working hours, to Greece, where only 13 per cent work part-time.
But arrangements beyond working hours are also possible. A report published in 2021 by AGE Platform Europe – a network of non-profit organisations representing people aged over 50 – cites the example of Sweden, where bus drivers have been able to maintain their jobs until a maximum age of 70 thanks to the introduction of special contracts and annual health check-ups.
The legality of this arrangement was validated by the European Court of Justice, which deemed that this age limitation was needed for safety reasons but also to ensure that younger workers aren’t squeezed out of the job market.
What are the motivations of these senior workers?
This extension of working time is a way to improve financial security, whether it is to reach a full pension, save money towards private funds or combine a retirement pension with part-time employment. This can ensure better income for oneself, or to support family members, such as children or older parents.
According to a 2012 EU survey, 30 per cent of workers aged between 50 and 69 said they continued to work for financial or subsistence reasons, as in the case of farmers living on small family farms.
As pointed out in the AGE report, continuing to work can, for some occupations, also allow older people to continue to participate in society: “It has been shown that work provides meaning and stability, helps maintain social ties and a sense of belonging, and offers learning opportunities and new experiences. Work is therefore not just about income; it is essential to the realisation of other basic human rights and is an inseparable and inherent part of human dignity”.
Minimum wages have declined because of soaring inflation. This is how things stand across Europe
Are there more and more elderly people in the European workforce?
The employment rates of those aged 65-69, 70-74, and 75 and over have been increasing for the past 20 years, especially for the 65-69-year-olds. While in 2021, over 9 per cent of the working population was aged 60 and over, the figure was only 4.5 per cent 20 years ago.
The increase comes mainly from the 60-64 age group. As a result of reforms that have raised the legal retirement age in several EU countries, the number of people working in this age group has automatically increased.
Between 2009 and 2021, the share of 55-64-year-olds increased the most, almost doubling, in Hungary, Poland and Malta, mainly due to a particularly high employment rate among women. Sweden, which already had nearly 70 per cent of its workforce in this age group in 2009, had little room for improvement in the employment of senior workers. In fact, it recorded the smallest increase (12 per cent). On average in the EU, the share of active 55-64 year-olds has increased by 40 per cent.
In 2000, the European Council set the bloc a target for an average employment rate of 50 per cent among 55-64-year-olds. This figure was reached in 2015 at the EU level (51 per cent) and only three member states had not reached it by 2021: Hungary (49 per cent), Greece (48 per cent) and Luxembourg (47 per cent).