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The Persisting Effects of Early Life Decisions

There now is substantial evidence that the decisions that individuals make during early adulthood have important consequences for their life circumstances in late life. Studies of retirement income provide perhaps the best illustration of this research domain. The strongest predictor of retirement income is occupational history. Throughout adulthood, individuals ‘‘sort themselves’’ into jobs that differ not only in income, but also in benefits (i.e., total compensation packages).

Of these, the availability and quality of pensions is most important for retirement income. There is strong evidence that the provision of pensions differs not only by occupation, but also by industrial sector (Quadagno 1988). Thus, when individuals make occupational choices—including job changes throughout adulthood—they are inevitably determining, in part, their retirement incomes.

Research on women’s retirement income has broadened our understanding of the life-course consequences of early decisions. Women and men tend to be concentrated in different occupations and different industrial sectors—and those in which women dominate have, on average, lower earnings and lower likelihood of pension coverage (O’Rand 1988).

Moreover, family formation decisions strongly affect women’s job histories. Compared to men, women are less likely to work full-time and work fewer total years, largely as a result of parental responsibilities. All of these factors combine to produce substantially lower retirement incomes for women than for men (O’Rand and Landerman 1984)

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