‘aging and the Labour Market Conference’

Comments for Concluding Session of NIDEA University of Waikato, February 2-3, 2012.

Keywords: Labour Studies; Political Economy & History;

To begin with congratulating the organisers of conference, who have produced one of those stimulating events which will be long remembered by the professions as the foundation for a major debate.

But I would also like to the opportunity to thank the demographic profession generally.  I am writing a history of New Zealand and time and time again I go to population statistics to help me sort out a problem.  Of course the statistics available far back in our history are limited, so that frequently I am faced with trying to interpret data well-prepared in the past but asking of it questions formulated from a later framework. It has made me very sensitive to the way that data traps us into a particular way of thinking about the world.

I have had similar feelings over the last few days. Time and again I heard us formulating questions and answering them in terms of the data sets and definitions we have had. Often I heard an undercurrent of other issues – more relevant issues – challenging the analysis and conclusions. Here are some examples.

Too often we have been concerned with head counts – the more sophisticated categorise the population into full-time workers, part-time workers, and non-workers. What do we mean by part-time? Two hours a week, thirty hours a week? Would it not to be better to be recording and discussing the issue in terms of hours worked? Would we see differently the transition from full-time paid work to retirement if we had an hourly record of paid work? Who knows, but the answer is ‘probably’.

Note I inserted ‘paid’ into the definition of work. Economists have known for at least 70 years, feminists for about 30, that there is a major problem about the systematic treatment of unpaid work.  We have not been able to resolve it, partly because there has not been the data. This has led to a lot of complaining, which in New Zealand we doing in order to avoid thinking.  But we now have had a useful database—the time use survey – for about a decade. Indeed we already have a second generation of the survey. Has anyone used it intensively yet? Not that I know of. Would it make a difference to our thinking about unpaid work? Certainly. Would it change our understanding of the transition to retirement and aging? Almost as certainly. Is anyone going to investigate these issues? Probably not for a while.

One can also be trapped by the categorisation. One of the graphs which was shown had me wondering whether the categorisation of men and women for over 50s is as helpful as it used to be. Of course there are men and women who have very different experiences, just as there are men and men who also have had very different experiences. The graph set me wondering whether there was a significant group of women whose transition to retirement was similar to a significant group of men. Does that have any implications? Who knows?  Should it be looked at? It wont be as long as we think of men and women categories as inviolably separate.

My final example is health. Was I justified in concluding from some of the presentations that increasingly, as institutional arrangements become more flexible, health is a major influence on the transition to retirement, even more important than choice and social convention? Perhaps I am wrong. But should we not investigate it? Have we good enough data to do that? Probably not.  I add that I am coming away from this conference with a belief that there is a strong case for a successor conference on aging and health to find out what we know and what we don’t know, just as we have today.

Which leads me to the following conclusion. This has been a good conference consolidating what we know, raising issues and future research directions, suggesting policy responses, and reminding  me – and I hope others – that we are trapped by the data base. We need to be aware of the trap, and we need to push for an extension of the database so we can be trapped further along the road.