Objectives Persistent and substantial disparities in old-age mortality suggest that there may
be great inequalities in the length of retirement life. This study aims to assess gender and
educational differences in the average retirement lifespan and the variation in retirement
lifespan, taking into account individual labor-force exit and re-entry dynamics.
Methods We used longitudinal data from the Health and Retirement Study in 1996–2016,
focusing on respondents aged 50 and above (N = 32,228). Multistate life tables were estimated
using discrete-time event history models. The average retirement lifespan, as well as absolute
and relative inequalities in retirement lifespan, were calculated analytically.
Results We found that among women there was a persistent educational gradient in
average retirement lifespan over the whole period studied; among men, the relationship
between education and retirement expectancy was different across periods. Women and the
lower-educated had higher absolute inequality in retirement lifespan than men and the highereducated—yet these relationships were reversed when examined by relative inequality.
Discussion Our multistate approach provides an accurate and comprehensive picture of the
retirement lifespan of older Americans in the past two decades. Such findings should be
considered in high-level discussions on Social Security. Potential reforms such as raising the
eligibility age or cutting benefits may have unexpected implications for different social groups
due to their differential impacts on retirement initiation and re-entry dynamics.