Easing out of work: Scientists practice
Since 1995 Willis, 66, a U-M economist, has directed the Health and Retirement Study conducted by the 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 says. "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 study founding director, economist F. Thomas Juster, 80, who embodies the practice of retiring so gradually you don't really retire at all in the conventional sense. For years after Juster officially retired from the University, he showed up in his ISR office daily. "Isn't he retired?" puzzled staffers asked each other.
In fact, findings from the Health & Retirement Study clearly show that gradual retirementrather than working full tilt one day and not at all the nextis the way most Americans would do it if they had the choice. Three out of every four older workers would prefer to reduce 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 ages 57-67 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 earned while working full-time. And if this happened, the percent of the population between ages 62-69 who are completely retired would drop 10-15 percentraising the rates of experienced workers in the labor force at a time when the country needs it the most; when the baby boomers are reaching the traditional age of retirement.
So Willis was in the lucky minority, his own study showed. He also was fortunate that colleague and study co-director, economist David Weir, already was 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," Weir says. "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," he says.
For the last several years, Weir, in a gradual promotion that mirrors Willis's gradual retirement, has been pushing a new set of ideas that are moving the study firmly into the 21st century. Last year, the Health and Retirement Study received funding for six more years, and many of Weir's ideas already are being implemented.
Researchers have started collecting biomarker data from participantsDNA samples, blood pressure measurements and fingerprint blood spot samples to check for common disease markers. The questionnaire that participants answered in 2006 also included 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 respondents can open up to partners to talk about worries, and how much partners get on their nerves.
The Health and Retirement Study team held a dinner and series of meetings recently to formally mark the leadership and organizational changes. Willis became the chair of the study steering committee and remains an active partner in the research. He serves as an adviser to a growing number of international studiesin Britain, the European Union, Israel, and soon in China, Japan and Thailandall modeled on the U.S. research.
Weir became the principal investigator and director of the study. The event also marked a change in the roles of Juster and other longtime collaborators from around the country who are moving away from daily involvement in the study.
But no one is retiring.
"We think of it as graduation rather than retirement," Weir says. "It's a time to move forward, not to call it a day."
More on the research, which also is supported by the Michigan Retirement Research Center, is available at www.mrrc.isr.umich.edu/publications/newsletters.