The interplay of work-family trajectories and welfare provisions in (in)voluntary retirement: A cross-national comparison of 28 European countries

We often imagine retirement as a voluntary withdrawal from the labor market to enjoy the later stage of life. The reality for most people, however, is different. Many retirees exit the workforce not because they want to, but because they are forced to. When forced to retire, people are not well-prepared for post-retirement life and may, therefore, face psychological, social, and financial problems. This means that involuntary exit from work might worsen existing social inequality, highlighting the need to understand factors that determine retirement voluntariness. Factors at both the individual and contextual level determine retirement voluntariness.

So far, we have incomplete knowledge about the impact of factors at these levels and mainly about their potential interaction. At the individual level, past research examined relatively static characteristics, including gender and educational level. These characteristics usually are constant over time and do not provide information about how disadvantages accumulate over the course of a person’s life to result in involuntary retirement.

Yet retirement is not a discrete, isolated life event. It is a dynamic process rooted in the accumulation of earlier experiences across multiple life domains, especially the domains of work and family. Importantly, this accumulation occurs differently for different people. Some accumulate adverse events in earlier life (e.g., unemployment in the work domain; divorce in the family domain), while others do not. This then restricts the agency of those with accumulated adversities to navigate into retirement. Thus, we should consider work-family life courses to gain deeper insights into social inequalities in retirement voluntariness.

Regarding the contextual level, studies on retirement voluntariness usually ignored the country context. Most studies examined only a single or a few countries. Some included more countries yet did not examine cross-level interactions between individual- and country-level factors. The omission of cross-level interactions renders it unclear under which conditions social inequalities in retirement voluntariness are aggravated or mitigated by country characteristics, such as policies and regulations.

People construct work, family, and retirement trajectories within different institutional structures. As these structures vary across countries, people living in distinct countries may diverge in their opportunities and constraints when it comes to exercising agency over their retirement, even if they had similar work-family trajectories. Hence, it is necessary to scrutinize the role of work-family trajectories in retirement voluntariness with a comparative lens.

Our research integrates the individual and country level to study retirement voluntariness and makes three contributions.

  • First, instead of single life events that occur at specific moments in a person’s life, we examine complete and joint work-family trajectories as individual-level predictors of retirement voluntariness. In doing so, we unravel whether people with distinct life histories differ in the risk of (in)voluntary retirement and illuminate the accumulation of (dis)advantages over people’s life course.
  • Second, we study how retirement voluntariness comes about at the interaction of work-family trajectories and institutional factors, thereby extending the theoretical debate of agency versus structure. We consider a country’s generosity of sickness, unemployment, and pension benefits. These benefits provide resources to those who are susceptible to retiring involuntarily. For that reason, they are expected to better deal with adversities accumulated over the life course and diminish social inequalities in retirement.
  • Third, our contextual data is based on annual and comparable information across five decades from 28 European countries, including the Netherlands.

Netspar, Network for Studies on Pensions, Aging and Retirement, is a thinktank and knowledge network. Netspar is dedicated to promoting a wider understanding of the economic and social implications of pensions, aging and retirement in the Netherlands and Europe.

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