Easing out of work: U-M Health & Retirement Study scientists practice what their research shows most Americans want
- Published on Jun 12, 2007
- Contact Diane Swanbrow
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—When Bob Willis thought about retiring, he knew just how he wanted to do it. Slowly. Or maybe never.
Since 1995 Willis, 66, a University of Michigan economist, has directed the enormous Health and Retirement Study conducted by the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and funded by the National Institute on Aging. One of the largest and most ambitious social science research projects in the world, the study surveys a nationally representative sample of more than 20,000 Americans over the age of 50 every other year to track how they are doing as they age.
"I was really interested in divesting myself of the administrative duties connected with the study so I could spend more time on a new line of research I've been pursuing," Willis said. "But I also wanted to stay actively involved with the Health and Retirement Study. This study, and the people who work on it, are an important part of my life."
Willis had always consulted closely with the study's founding director, U-M economist F. Thomas Juster, 80, who embodies the process of retiring so gradually you don't really retire at all in any conventional sense. For years after Juster formally retired, he showed up in his ISR office on a daily basis. "Isn't he retired?" puzzled staffers asked each other.
In fact, findings from the Health & Retirement Study itself clearly show that gradual retirement—rather than working full tilt one day and not at all the next—is the way most Americans would do it if they had the choice. Three out of every four older workers would prefer to reduce their hours gradually rather than retire abruptly, according to the study. But employers' lack of flexibility about working hours usually prevents this. Among working study participants between the ages of 57 and 67, only 13 percent described themselves as "partially retired."
One analysis of the study data, supported by the ISR Michigan Retirement Research Center, found that two-thirds of workers would partially retire if firms allowed them to scale back their hours at the same hourly wage they earned while working full-time. And if this happened, the percent of the population between the ages of 62 and 69 who are completely retired would drop by 10 to 15 percent—taking some of the strain off Social Security and raising the rates of experienced workers in the labor force at a time when the country needs it the most—just when the baby boomers are reaching the traditional age of retirement.
So Willis is in the lucky minority, his own study clearly shows. He is also lucky that his colleague and study co-director, economist David Weir, was already in place and ready to take the reins.
"As we talked about this transition, we were very aware of the necessary and healthy tension between continuity and change," said Weir, 52. "A key reason for doing it this way was to preserve the wisdom of people who have been involved in the study for a long time while at the same time nurturing the next generation of researchers."
For the last several years, Weir, in a kind of gradual promotion that's the mirror image of Willis's gradual retirement, has worked on a new set of ideas that are moving the study firmly into the 21st century. Researchers have started collecting biomarker data from participants—DNA samples, blood pressure measurements and fingerprint blood spot samples to check for common disease markers. The questionnaire that participants answer now includes many more items designed to find out how people are doing emotionally. Instead of simply asking whether or not they have a partner, for example, the new questionnaire asks about the quality of the relationship: whether you can open up to your partner if you need to talk about your worries, how much they get on your nerves.
Last week in Ann Arbor, the Health and Retirement Study team held a dinner and series of meetings to formally mark the leadership and organizational changes. Willis became the chair of the study's steering committee. He remains an active partner in the study, and serves as an adviser to a growing number of international studies—in Britain, the European Union, Israel, and soon in China, Japan and Thailand—all of them modeled on the U.S. study. Weir became the principal investigator and director of the study. The event also marked a change in the roles of Juster and other long-time collaborators from around the country, who are moving away from day-to-day involvement in the study. But no one is retiring. "We think of it as graduation rather than retirement," Weir said. "It's a time to move forward, not to call it a day. And June is the traditional month for graduation ceremonies."
Today, Weir and Willis are in Washington, D.C. to present "Growing Older in America: The Health and Retirement Study," a book produced by the National Institute on Aging, to policymakers and the media. The volume summarizes many of the study's findings to date, and highlights the role of the Health and Retirement Study as a major resource on aging in America. The event also marks the transition from one generation to the next. According to a plan Bob Willis set in motion shortly after he took the helm, the first big group of baby boomers joined the study recently. And now, with the boomers entering their 60s and closing in on retirement—whatever that means—a boomer is firmly installed as the Health and Retirement Study's director.
Established in 1948, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest academic survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the American National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world's largest computerized social science data archive. Visit the ISR web site at www.isr.umich.edu for more information.
NOTE: Willis is directing a National Institute on Aging Program Project on "Behavior on Surveys and in the Economy using the Health and Retirement Study." A major focus of this project is concerned with exploring theoretical and empirical linkages between psychology, economics and survey response, in part through creation of new data. On May 4, Willis described some elements of this new line of research in his Presidential Address to the Society of Labor Economists, "Cognitive Economics and Human Capital."