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Tapping Aging Brains for the Common Good

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Robert Willis is a Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan and Research Professor at the Population Studies Center.

Rapid population aging in many parts of the world means that policy makers and business communities will need to create conditions that enable aging workers to maximize productivity and adapt to changing technologies. We recently spoke with Robert Willis — Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan and Research Professor at the Population Studies Center — who has been conducting path-breaking research on the relationship between declining cognitive ability and work and retirement decisions.

He says that new data from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study shows that a decline in cognitive abilities has a very modest effect on people's ability to work at older ages, unlike education levels, which have a major effect. Does this pattern hold in rapidly aging Asian societies like China and Korea, where older workers are much less educated and social interaction with the more educated younger generation may play a key role in maintaining cognitive function at older ages? Studies under way, like CHARLS (China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study) and the Chinese Family Panel Study, will allow us to answer this type of question.

Exercise plays a vital role in maintaining brain health. Photo credit: Flickr @A Health Blog


Willis also points out that that a big question for the future and for workers in developing countries is whether technological changes substitute for the tasks that people are doing (which would encourage retirement) or enhance their productivity (like a waiter using an iPad) (see his recent study on computerization and labor demands). Another recent paper by Willis, "Mental Retirement" illustrates that in the United States and European countries with pension schemes that reduce work incentives, there is a faster drop in labor force participation after age 60 and a significantly larger decline in people's cognitive function based on simple memory tests.

(For more on the topic, see "Conference on Challenges of Population Aging in Asia" held this past April by the HKUST Institute for Emerging Market Studies.)

This post was first published on the Jobs Knowledge Platform.


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