Work life is getting longer in Germany

Max Planck Society

A study confirms this trend, while also showing major differences between men and women, eastern and western Germany, and low and high-skilled workers

Can extending work lives be a solution to the future problems of an aging society? If everyone works longer and retires later, the number of people paying into the pension system will increase. Little is known about work life in Germany. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock and the Federal Institute for Population Research have now conducted a study to examine how the length of work life in Germany has changed and what influence the numerous labor market and pension reforms of recent decades have had.

One finding is that the length of work life in Germany is increasing across all cohorts in all educational levels and occupational fields – for both men and women. The research team, led by Christian Dudel, Deputy Head of Labor Demography at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, analyzed data from the German Microcensus. The study looked at birth cohorts from 1941 to 1955 and working ages from 55 to 64. The period from 1996 to 2019 was considered in eastern and western Germany. The analysis was carried out according to gender, level of education and professional qualification.

People on low incomes are at a disadvantage

However, there are significant differences in the length of work life. Highly educated West German men have the longest work lives. On average, they work three times as long as women with low educational attainment in eastern Germany. Nevertheless, East German women as a whole have a longer work life than women in West Germany, which is likely attributable to the German Democratic Republic legacy of high female employment. Even today, East German women work more hours per week on average than West German women. There are also clear differences between low-skilled and highly skilled workers. This is mainly due to the fact that people with a low level of education are unemployed more often and for longer than academics and have little chance of getting a new job, especially in old age.

Policies should enable all people to work longer

In the past, before the recent labor market reforms, the focus was on making early retirement more attractive. It was less about preventing people from being forced out of the labor market in old age. “It is only since 2002, that there have been several policy measures and reforms in Germany aimed at extending work lives. These measures are usually designed for people with a high degree of integration in the labor market, i.e. people with a high income and a long and stable employment record,” says Dr. Dudel. “The challenge for the future will be to initiate policies that enable people to work longer without increasing inequalities between different groups of workers.” In particular, people with low educational attainment will be at a severe disadvantage.

“The baby boomers will soon reach retirement age. The impact on the labor market could possibly be mitigated by the fact that those born after 1955 are increasingly better educated and could therefore potentially work longer. Nevertheless, forecasts from other countries show that the increase in work life could soon stagnate,” says the Rostock researcher.

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