Work makes us blokes happy

New research shows that UK employees in the 60 or over age group report a significantly higher quality of working life than their middle-aged colleagues. And this pre-retirement bounce is more pronounced in men.

The research shows that quality of working life tends to be higher in the under 25 and in the 60 or over age groups, with the 25 to 59 year olds reporting the lowest quality of working life. This pre-retirement bounce in quality of working life reflects a strongly positive change in the way people feel about their work as they near retirement.

But the trends for men and women show interesting and highly significant differences, especially in the context of the planned changes in retirement age.

Previous research has shown that women are generally happier than men at work. However, this study carried out by University of Portsmouth spin-out company QoWL shows that as we get older the difference in happiness narrows.

The trends completely reverse at around age 60. At this age, men – with several years of working life still to go – seem to experience a notable increase in quality of working life. However, women – typically nearer to retirement at this age – report much less of an increase.

Men, for the first time, have become much happier at work than women.

It isn’t clear exactly why the pre-retirement bounce is so much stronger in men, but there are a number of interesting possibilities:

  • It might be related to the differing job roles occupied by men and women. Men may have roles that provide more flexibility and therefore are able to wind down more and reduce their stress.
  • Men may typically have the prospect of a much higher pension, which also provides more flexibility and options.
  • Alternatively, it may have something to do with gender differences in attitudes towards work and retirement. Men may look forward to retirement much more and see it as an opportunity to stop working and spend more time doing the things they like doing.
  • Women on the other hand may value work for the social opportunities and networks it provides rather than simply as a means of earning money.
  • The prospect of more leisure time may not seem nearly as attractive to women as they may see themselves as ‘still working’ but at home and in a different way. The prospect of more time at home with their husbands may not be a cause of joy and happiness!

The level of improvement in the quality of working life is certainly interesting because it shows that satisfaction with work can improve. It is therefore worth exploring ways of making things better for all workers. Says Dr Darren Van Laar, QoWL’s lead researcher:

“While we are only now beginning to identify the factors that contribute to quality of working life, this research underlines the potential benefits that might be reaped from taking action to enhance the work environment and experience for all age groups.”

This becomes more than of academic interest when the trends are analysed more closely in the light of the planned increases in retirement ages. Men report little change in their quality of working life from 25 to 59 years, so it might be expected that a relatively small lengthening of their working lives due to later retirement ages could slightly delay the ‘Pre-retirement Bounce’.

But, for women, the apparent gradual lessening of their quality of working life with age, coupled with a more substantial increase in the number of years they have to work before retirement, might mean that older women experience further reduction in their quality of working life. They may end up less content in their pre-retirement years – missing out on the ‘Bounce’.

QoWL will next be looking to see if the changes in retirement age do lead to lowering of reported quality of life. They’ll be working with employers to learn why men see things so much more positively after 60. If they can identify the sources of that improvement for men, it may well be possible to work with employers to help their women employees enjoy the ‘Pre-retirement Bounce’ as well.

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