What will your life be like in older age? Further rationale for an education and skills based industrial strategy

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Old and young

By Holly Birkett (Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour), Fiona Carmichael (Professor of Labour Economics) and Jo Duberley (Professor of Organisational Studies)

People’s lives in older age vary as much as they do at any other time of their lives. This variation is partly dependent on the path your earlier life course followed.

This conclusion is based on recent research that examines the links between individual life histories and later life outcomes. The research showed the importance of factors such as employment, family caring history, access to resources, particularly material and financial resources, social networks and cultural capital (including education) and your physical and mental health in your younger and middle age. All of these are interlinked, so financial resources can give individuals greater access to social and cultural resources and help to maintain physical health, while education shapes careers and helps people to amass financial capital. As such these interlinkages can mean that inequalities in the initial distribution of resources are reinforced, facilitating those in a privileged position and constraining those who are disadvantaged.

The role gender and class plays

The research finds that men and women with similar career histories share similar retirement expectations and experiences, but this relationship is mediated by factors such as gender and class as well as access to resources. For example, people who have long professional careers are likely to be more optimistic and more contented in retirement. In contrast, those who do not embark on professional careers until later in their lives, perhaps because of their earlier caring responsibilities, are more ambivalent about retirement, fearing the loss of work-related identities and financial insecurity. People who have followed disjointed career paths with periods in and out of work and in different types of employment, including self-employment can also face financial instability in retirement. Women who have worked in administrative employment but have also been very involved in family networks may be more optimistic about retirement because it means more time to spend with family and friends.  In contrast, men who have followed semi-skilled careers can be concerned about identity loss and inactivity in retirement.

Accessing financial resources

This research highlights the importance of access to financial resources at all stages of people’s lives. Those who have significant financial resources early on in their lives are more likely to have successful careers which means they accumulate more financial resources and have better financial security in later life, opening up options for positive retirement experiences. However, periods of ill-health, family caring responsibilities for adults as well as children and decisions relating to re-training and learning can change the course of people’s lives in both negative and positive ways.

This evidence provides another argument for supporting policies that aim to raise people’s education and skills to improve their opportunities for employment and quality of  life in older age. Such policies which raise the skills base of a region or country will also have much wider benefits for society.


Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Birkett, H., Carmichael, F. and Duberley, J. (2017) Activity in the third age: Examining the relationship between careers and retirement experiences, Journal of Vocational Behavior, 103, Part B, 52-65

Carmichael, F. and Ercolani, M. (2016) Unpaid caring and paid employment: different life-histories and divergent outcomes, Social Science and Medicine, 156, 1-11

Duberley, J. & Carmichael, F. (2016). Career Pathways in Retirement in the UK: Linking Older Women’s Pasts to the Present. Gender, Work and Organization, 23(6), 582-599.

Duberley, J., Carmichael, F & Szmigin, I (2014). Exploring Women’s Retirement: Continuity, Context and Career Transition. Gender, Work & Organization, 21(1), 71-90.

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