Education extends working life

Gender-specific effects of education at the transition to retirement

Marco Seegers

In July 2021, the Federal Employment Agency published an announcement stating that more than one million employees are now aged over 67.* Employment at an older age is becoming increasingly normal, albeit for different reasons. It is revealed that older women are particularly likely to have a lower income. It is also more probable that they will be affected by poverty. The present article investigates how gender-specific life histories structure the transition to retirement and looks at the influence exerted by level of education.

Gender-specific employment and educational opportunities over the course of life histories

Cultural and social factors (including attitudes, social roles, [social] origin) and various resources such as money, power, time and education are some of the reasons why the life histories of men and women differ. Men and women thus have different employment opportunities and make different decisions in certain phases of life, such as opting for full-time or part-time work. The cumulative effects of these may extend well into the later course of life. Normative gender roles exert a particular influence on the shaping of individual life histories, and this is reflected in the fact that household and family-related tasks are predominantly performed by women (cf. HOBLER et al. 2020, pp. 32 ff.). Gender-specific disadvantages mainly occur in certain phases of life or within certain educational and occupation-specific contexts. Gender-specific inequalities are (re)produced depending on the context, role model and available resources. These are reinforced over the course of time and may also unfurl their impact in later phases of life, e.g. in the form of lower pension rights (cf. FALK 2005, pp. 296 ff.). Respective employment opportunities over the course of life are closely linked with educational level, which acts as an individual resource. Educational qualifications tend to be acquired in the first quarter of a person’s life history, and thus prior to the beginning of working life. This inevitably has a structuring effect on subsequent phases of life (cf. FALK 2005, pp. 297 ff.). The higher the educational qualification obtained, the higher the likelihood of gaining access to certain educational sectors (e.g. higher education) and to jobs which enjoy a higher status and are well paid (cf. VOCATIONAL EDUCATION AND TRAINING REPORTING AUTHORS’ GROUP 2018, pp. 191 ff.; 2020, pp. 303 ff.).

National Educational Panel Study (NEPS) and sequence analysis

The National Educational Panel Study (NEPS) offers longitudinal data on subjects such as biographical histories over the whole of a lifetime. It contains information on phases of education, employment and families and on other relevant phases of life.

Within the scope of the sequence analysis, a distinction is drawn between phases of employment (full-time, part-time, “mini jobs”, other employment) and other phases of life (unemployment, “housewife/house husband”, pension, formal continuing training, gap/other). The NEPS uses the wording “housewife/house husband” to record persons who are not officially deemed to be unemployed, who derive their life income from a different source (mostly via a partner), and who primarily devote their attention to taking care of the household and children/family members. Phases of formal (continuing) training include periods such as school attendance, higher education study, retraining programmes and continuing vocational training. Gaps/other phases encompass long-term holidays, for example. It may also be the case that no information regarding current status was provided.

Educational level is differentiated according to the highest educational qualification acquired over the course of life. Educational qualification groups are divided into persons with a lower secondary school leaving certificate, persons with an intermediate secondary school leaving certificate, persons with a university of applied sciences or general higher education entrance qualification and persons with a degree from a university of applied sciences or institute of higher education. Persons without a school qualification are not taken into account because sample sizes are too low.

Occupational segregation

The choice of a certain occupation over the course of life is also a decision which is frequently marked in a gender-specific way on the basis of the factors stated above. This is reflected in aspects such as occupational segregation of the German labour (cf. HAUSMANN/KLEINERT 2014) and training market (cf. HOBLER et al. 2020, p. 9). There is also an association with gender-specific opportunities to obtain employment. Women are more likely to be in jobs with a lesser scope of work (e.g. part-time positions or “mini-jobs”). One of the possible interpretations of this is as a strategy for achieving a work-life balance (cf. BMFSFJ 2020, pp. 50 ff., 77 ff., HOBLER et al. 2020, pp. 26, 32 ff.). Women also earn less on average (gender pay gap), and this wage margin between men and women tends to grow wider during the course of life due to differences in employment behaviour (cf. SCHRENKER/ZUCCO 2020). At the same time, women in working life also have worse chances of advancement and lower co-determination rights. Poorer remuneration is one of the outcomes of this circumstance (cf. HOBLER et al. 2020, pp. 21, 39). It is more probable too that women will interrupt their employment histories (e.g. for phases of parental time) (cf. FALK 2005, p. 298) and that they will be financially dependent on a partner to a greater degree because of more frequent unemployment, a lesser scope of work and a lower wage (cf. BMFSFJ 2020, pp. 68 ff.).

Precisely these kinds of multifarious disadvantages may accumulate over the course of life and then lead to consequences such as significantly lower average incomes for women in old age (cf. KLAMMER 2020). A pension thus represents the balance sheet of an individual working life (cf. SCHMITZ-KIEßLER 2020).

This point is picked up below, where the focus is on life histories of men and women depending on educational qualification. The object of investigation is the extent to which life phases of men and women differ shortly before retirement and after the point where retirement commences, the aim being to explore inequality effects over the course of life in connection with educational level.

Database and methodology

Figure: Life histories of men and women (birth cohort 1944–55) in the period from 1990 to 2018 by highest educational qualification achieved Foto-Download (Bild, 593 KB)

The sequence analysis chosen here provides a descriptive method for an aggregated consideration of the life histories which are of interest. This enables typical history patterns of men and women to be traced as social groups in chronological order so as to monitor any cumulative educational effects which may have taken place (cf. SCHERER/BRÜDERL 2010).

The database used is the Adult Survey (SC6:11.1.0) carried out by the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS) from the period from 1990 to 2018 (cf. BLOSSFELD/ROßBACH/MAURICE 2011). This database contains only life histories from the cohort born between 1944 and 1955 and thus permits the period of observation to be concentrated on phases shortly before entry into retirement and then into retirement itself. At the beginning of the period of observation (1990), the persons involved are therefore aged between 35 and 46. At the end of the period (2018), they are aged from 63 to 74. The analysis is informed by data on a total of 993 men and 949 women. The figure shows the life histories of men and women from 1990 to 2018 by highest educational qualification achieved. In each case, the percentage proportions of a status (cf. Information Box) are mapped over the course of the time period, which encompasses a total of 336 person months (28 years). Rising or falling proportions of a status over time thus indicate that more or fewer men/women were included in a certain status in a certain month.

Male life histories mainly characterised by full-time work

Male life histories are marked by phases of full-time work (mid-blue), and the proportion of these phases increases in line with rising educational qualification. The proportion of phases of part-time work (grey-blue) also goes up in line with rising educational qualification, albeit to a much lesser extent. The proportion of “mini-job” phases (light green) increases in all three educational groups shortly prior to or at the transition to retirement (green). This effect is most clearly revealed in the case of men with a low level of education. It is unclear whether this occurs because of financial necessity or due to an interest in employment. Men with low and average levels of education are also more likely than highly educated men to be experiencing phases of unemployment (mid-green). Only a slight role is played by “house husbands” (light orange), by other employment (orange), by formal continuing education and training (light blue) and by other phases/gap phases (dark blue).

Discontinuous female life histories

Female life histories are structured in a more discontinuous way than those of men and are more likely to exhibit interruptions (e.g. because of phases of parental time). Women also spend a significantly longer time than men in part-time work. The proportion of phases of full-time and part-time increase in line with rising educational qualification, but to a lesser degree than is the case with men. The differences in this regard between women with average and with high levels of education are also only slight. The proportion of “mini-jobs” and of phases of unemployment also rise in line with falling educational qualification, whereby there is a significant increase in the proportion of “housewife phases”. “Mini-job” phases shortly before or at the transition to retirement are significantly more pronounced compared to such phases amongst men. “Housewife phases” are moderately represented in all educational groups, although proportions rise in line with lower educational qualification.

Higher level educational qualifications extend working life

It also becomes clear that phases of full-time and part-time employment decrease over the course of time in both male and female life histories and that persons increasingly enter the phase of retirement. The higher the educational level, the more likely it is that both men and women will remain in employment for longer and thus enter retirement at a later point. This effect is more clearly discernible in male life histories than in female histories. In the latter case, only slight differences may be observed between women with average and with high levels of education.

Is employment in old age a case of financial necessity or the result of a wish for societal participation?

The analysis provides evidence of familiar patterns of gender-specific employment histories. Men predominantly work full-time, whereas women tend to be employed on a part-time basis and frequently with interruptions. Nevertheless, virtually no differences in proportions of phases of employment are revealed in the female group between women with average and with high levels of education. This indicates that highly educated women in particular have not (yet) been able to realise the full extent of the employment opportunities associated with their educational qualification. Women with a lower level of educational qualification are also more likely to be in “housewife phases”. Because these women have entirely withdrawn from the labour market, they are dependent on the income/assets of their partner and also rarely return to employment. On the other hand, traditional gender roles weaken in line with increasing educational qualification. The assumption may therefore be made that more highly educated women have better employment opportunities, that they are able to realise these over the course of life and that positive cumulative educational effects are reinforced in the later phases of life. This may, for example, be reflected in better payment, higher income in old age, chances of professional advancement and also a more egalitarian division of labour within a partnership.

Phases of employment also lengthen in line with rising educational qualification, and both men and women enter retirement at a later point. Assuming that higher level educational qualifications lead to better working conditions, it may be supposed that men and women tend to remain in employment for longer because they tend to wish for societal participation, i.e. they desire social belonging and interaction and want to be in work because it is an element which gives meaning and structure to life. On the other hand, companies also increasingly appreciate the competencies of older employees (e.g. practical knowledge) as providing a resource, particularly in occupations and sectors with staff shortages, and they attempt to retain older staff members for longer (cf. FRERICHS 2015). A further trend revealed is the greater frequency of carrying out mini-jobs shortly before or at the transition to retirement. This trend strengthens in line with falling level of educational qualification, especially in the case of women. To a certain extent, a connection may be made in this regard with financial necessity occasioned by low income in old age. As remarked at the outset, more men occupy higher professional positions. It is conceivable that such persons are more likely to enjoy the decision-making power which enables them to determine for themselves the time at which and the manner in which they will leave working life and enter retirement. Because men have a higher income on average, another link which may be made is that they are more likely to have the opportunity to accumulate assets and generate higher pension rights, something which tends to be reinforced as level of education rises. This enables life status to be maintained at the transition to retirement without additional employment and suggests that women are more likely to work in “mini-jobs” in old age as a result of financial necessity, whereas mean tend to do so because of a wish for societal participation. Relevant research should be directed towards shedding light on this hypothesis in future. The fact is that too little is currently known about motivations for being in employment at a pensionable age, especially in the case of women.


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Academic researcher at BIBB


Translation from the German original (published in BWP 4/2021): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin