What We Talk about When We Talk about Self-employment: Examining Self-employment and the Transition to Retirement among Older Adults in the United States

Published: 2021
Project ID: UM21-14


Many older adults engage in self-employment, yet little is known about the nature of these activities due to a lack of data on work ranging from occasional gig employment to contract work to business ownership. The implications of such arrangements for income and economic security, work and retirement, and well-being are, therefore, relatively unexplored. This project will use natural language processing to leverage internal longitudinal data collected in the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) on narrative responses on industry and type of work to better understand older workers’ self-employment roles. The project will first classify reports to identify ownership, management, and independent self-employment roles, and will make the classification publicly available. The project will then use the classification, along with the breadth of information collected in the HRS and linkages to administrative records, to explore how the distribution and characteristics of employment have changed over time across different employment types. We also will examine how participation in different self-employment categories, including the gig economy, in the years leading up to and after retirement, has affected individuals’ economic security in retirement and their Social Security coverage and benefit adequacy. Linkage to administrative records will permit identifying reasons for discrepancies in administrative and survey reports of self-employment. The project will help to further understanding of who works in different types of self-employment and how self-employment types effects retirement age, work, and economic security in retirement, and well-being more broadly.