Is Bridge Job Activity Overstated?

Kevin E. Cahill presented “Is Bridge Job Activity Overstated?” at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Allied Social Science Associations.

San Francisco, CA
January 4, 2016

Considerable prior research has shown that the majority of older Americans with career employment do not exit the labor force directly from that career job. Rather, most move first to another job late in life, before complete labor force withdrawal. These intermediate jobs have been labeled “bridge jobs” because they are assumed to be a bridge to complete retirement.

One criticism of this research is that bridge job activity may be overstated because the definition of a bridge job in the existing literature does not require a change in occupation. For some, the “bridge job” may just be another in a series of job changes, and not a prelude to retirement. This paper investigates the extent to which bridge jobs involve a change in occupation or a switch to part-time status, both of which may signal the start of a retirement transition, as opposed to continued career employment, albeit with a different employer. We utilize the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a nationally-representative longitudinal dataset of older Americans that began in 1992. Among HRS respondents who were on a full-time career job at the time of the first interview and who changed jobs in subsequent waves, 48 percent of the men and 39 percent of the women also changed the (2-digit) occupation at the time of their first transition. Further, when hours worked are also considered, about three quarters of men and women experienced a change in occupation and/or a switch from full-time to part-time status. When all transitions after the career job are included, 8 out of 10 men and women either changed occupations, reduced hours to part time, or both. Finally, an examination of those career workers who changed jobs within the same occupation and who continued to work full time reveals that they more resemble those who took bridge jobs than those who remained on their full-time career job. We conclude that the vast majority of career workers who changed jobs later in life did in fact do so as part of a retirement transition. Ignoring these subtleties does result in an overestimate of bridge job activity, but only a modest one.

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