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Can Work Enhance Seniors’ Social Lives?

Callout boxMaintaining a network of family, friends, or even golfing buddies is critical to cognitive and physical health in old age, research has shown.

What wasn’t known is how work affects the social lives of older people. Does work foster social ties or limit the time one has to socialize?

A new study by Eleonora Patacchini at Cornell University and Gary Engelhardt at Syracuse University finds that those who continue to work have larger social networks.

They analyzed responses to the following question by more than 1,300 survey participants in the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project. The participants were ages 57 to 85 in 2005 and answered the following question then and again in 2010:

“Most people discuss things that are important to them with others. For example, these may include good or bad things that happen to you, problems you are having, or important concerns you may have. Looking back over the last 12 months, who are the people with whom you most often discussed things that were important to you?”

The participants were also asked for the names of up to six individuals in their networks, including a spouse. The average person in the survey listed four people whom they spoke to in person, over the phone or via email about four days per week.

The researchers examined whether three different factors caused the older people’s social networks to expand or contract between 2005 and 2010: continuing to work over the entire period, how many hours they spent at work, or whether they had retired during that five-year period.

Controlling for the older adults’ marital status, age, health, and income, all of which can affect social interactions, the researchers found that continuing to work had the most benefit, increasing the size of their networks of family and friends by 25 percent. Working more hours also had a smaller, though still beneficial, impact on their social lives. But social networks shrank among those who had retired at some point during the five-year time frame, the study found.

Not everyone benefited from remaining employed. Working did little to improve the social lives of men with a high school degree or less. But it had the most positive impact on women with at least some college education, the researchers found.

Retiring can have negative, and often unanticipated, consequences – on one’s personal finances, health, cognitive capacity, and sometimes, as we now know, on one’s personal relationships.

The research reported herein was performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement Research Consortium. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the author(s) and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA or any agency of the federal government. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

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