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How different are retirement patterns for richer and poorer people?

Jonathan Cribb

21 Feb 2024

Who retires early? And who keeps on working even as most of their former colleagues have retired? With policymakers in many countries keen on encouraging people to work longer as a part-solution to the challenges posed by an ageing population, knowing when different people retire, and how it has changed, is a key part of understanding the potential for people to delay retirement until later ages in the future. Jonathan Cribb from the Institute for Fiscal Studies explores how ELSA data have contributed to the discussion.

New work using the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (Cribb 2023), shows that the patterns of employment and retirement at older ages are very different between richer and poorer people and that they have changed in important ways over the last 20 years.

Figure 1 is reproduced from Cribb (2023). For 55-64 year olds it shows the fraction of people in paid work (green); unemployed (blue); retired (yellow) and economically inactive but not retired (dark red). And it shows how different economic inactivity for people on different levels of wealth in the early 2000s and late 2010s. A number of key points stand out from the graph.

Figure 1 Economic activity of people aged 55–64, by (non-pension) wealth quintile, 2002–03 and 2018–19

Source: Figure 5 of Cribb (2023).

First, employment rates have risen substantially – although as Bösrch-Supan and Coile (2023) show this is common in many high-income countries, not just in England. Employment at these ages has actually risen by most for people on average levels of wealth. A key reason is likely that middle income people don’t have the financial resources to retire early compared to their wealthier compatriots. That being said - more positively - these employment gains also reflect the additional opportunities that women have had in the working lives in recent decades which has helped them stay in the labour market for longer than their predecessors.  

Second, while poorer people, and richer people, are less likely to be in paid work than people closer to average levels of wealth, the reasons for this are very different. 40% of the poorest fifth of 55-64 year olds are out economically inactive but not retired. Most of these report not working due to work-limiting health or disability. In contrast, for the richest fifth of 55-64 year olds, what stands out is that many are retired – generally drawing private pension incomes. Indeed, while retirement rates have fallen at these ages for most groups, they have held up better for the wealthiest, meaning early retirement in increasingly concentrated amongst the richer parts of the population. 

The ELSA data also show us that these patterns are completely different once people get to state pension age – as shown in Figure 2. Many people retire in their mid 60s, with around 10% of the population retiring as they reach state pension age itself (Amin-Smith and Crawford 2018). By the time you get to 66 around a quarter of women and third of men are still in paid work. But above state pension age it is disproportionately the wealthiest people who are still in employment. This work is quite likely to be part time work, or a form of self-employment, giving these workers above state pension age a good deal of flexibility in their working lives.

This suggests that many richer people are continuing to stay in work beyond state pension age because they enjoy the work. Indeed, previous work using ELSA (Di Gessa et al 2018) found that around two-thirds of people working after state pension age reported still working due to wanting to ‘keep active and fit’ or ‘enjoying working’.

Figure 2. Employment rates of people aged 66–69 and 70–74 by (non-pension) wealth quintile, 2002–03 and 2018–19

Source: Figure 8 of Cribb (2023).


There have been dramatic changes in economic activity for people approaching, and after state pension age in recent decades – in common with many other high-income countries. Below state pension age these changes have been concentrated amongst people on close-to-average levels of wealth – with poorer people not experiencing this dramatic employment growth. In contrast to the hypothesis that many people struggle on in paid work post state pension age due to inadequate pensions, the evidence points to work above state pension age being disproportionately undertaken by wealthier people.



Amin-Smith, N. and Crawford, R., 2018. State pension age increases and the circumstances of older women. In J. Banks, G. D. Batty, J. Nazroo, A. Oskala and A. Steptoe (eds), The Dynamics of Ageing: Evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing 2002–16 (wave 8),

Börsch-Supan, A. and Coile, C., 2023. Introduction and summary. In Social Security Programs and Retirement Around the World: The Effects of Reforms on Retirement Behaviour, University of Chicago Press, forthcoming

Cribb, J. (2023) ‘Understanding retirement in the UK’ IFS Report r284

Di Gessa, G., Corna, L., Price, D. and Glaser, K., 2018. The decision to work after state pension age and how it affects quality of life: evidence from a 6-year English panel study. Age and Ageing, 47, 450–57, of Form.

Image courtesy of the Centre for Ageing Better Image Library

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