Working in retirement: If you keep doing useful work, you'll live longer and be healthier.

All you need to know about retirement.
March 10 2011 4:19 PM

Don't Stop Working!

What's the secret to living longer and being healthier? Keep doing useful work.

(Continued from Page 1)

For those who contemplate retirement as decades filled with leisure and relaxation, The Longevity Project serves as a warning. As Friedman says, "fun can be overrated" and stress can be unfairly maligned. Many study participants who lived vigorously into old age had highly stressful jobs. Physicist Norris Bradbury, who died at age 88, succeeded J. Robert Oppenheimer as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, overseeing the transition of the U.S. atomic weapons research lab from World War II into the Cold War.

Friedman and Martin say it's the kind of stress that matters. The bright boys selected for the study who ended up having low-status jobs—streetcar conductor, baker, porter—and whose careers did not match their early promise were far more likely to die before age 60 than their higher status counterparts. Success, even in challenging jobs with demanding hours and responsibility, is a tonic. (Ever notice that orchestra conductors and dictators tend to go on forever?)

Provocative as the book's findings are, it would have been helpful if the authors had assumed their readers were almost as bright as the Termites, and provided the statistical evidence for their claims. While they cite other studies that buttress their findings, it would have strengthened the book to be able to see what percentages of Termites back up the researchers conclusions.

Advertisement

***

The only real lesson in another book about the years at the end of life, Never Say Die by Susan Jacoby, is that you'd better hope there aren't too many of them. Jacoby offers a dystopian vision of what awaits those who make it to a vigorous three-score and 10, and then just keep going. Her book is a rambling jeremiad, warning that once into deep old age, no matter that the old person did everything right to get there, what awaits is decline, dependency, and dementia.

"In real old age, as opposed to fantasyland, most people who live beyond their mid-eighties can expect a period of extended frailty, illness, and disability before they die," she writes. She cautions that neither satisfying work, healthful habits, enduring love, nor a good attitude can protect from brittle bones, a mind clogged with damaged neurons, or a bank account inadequate to one's needs.

Reading Jacoby's denture-rattling slap of a book back to back with Friedman and Martin's did raise the issue of whether longevity is an ultimate good. Friedman and Martin write, "Although our studies look at health, aging, happiness, and other signs of well-being, we always ask who lives longest. Why? … [L]ength of life is the single best measure of health."

But as we look around the world at rapidly aging societies, such as Japan, Jacoby's warning reverberates. Japan was once a vital economic giant that was going to overtake the West. Now, nothing seems to sum up its stagnancy so much as the portraits of its thwarted young people and its ever-expanding legion of retirees, who require an ever-growing portion of the country's dwindling economic resources. Then there are the articles about how Japanese toy manufacturers, alarmed about the declining number of children and burgeoning population of elderly, market talking dolls to old women who may never have grandchildren of their own.

What Never Say Die and The Longevity Project agree on is the salutary effect of work. Jacoby writes, "Being forced to work longer, or to think about developing new skills to augment an inadequate retirement income, might turn out to be an invigorating kick in the pants for boomers rather than a life sentence at hard labor." Friedman and Martin write that an analysis of the activities and accomplishments of study participants during the 1980s, when most were in their 70s, and following what happened over the next two decades 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."

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 3:24 PM Why Innovators Hate MBAs
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 3:07 PM Everything Is a "Women's Issue"
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.