Socioeconomic status, daily work qualities, and psychological well-being over the adult life course: age trajectories and the mechanisms of mental health divergence



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The cumulative advantage hypothesis suggests diverging SES-gaps in health with age. However, empirical research yields inconsistent results regarding the age-related pattern. Using two panel surveys of nationally representative samples of American adults, this study comprehensively examines the patterns of mental health disparity across the adult life span, taking into account not only various dimensions of socioeconomic status (SES), but also several aspects of daily work quality as a structural condition proximal to SES. Results of the cross-sectional analyses indicate that SES and work quality factors generate diverging gaps in both depression and anxiety with age. The cumulative advantage mechanism explains the mental health divergence through cumulative advantages which SES or work quality generates in two mediating factors, physical impairment and the sense of control. The resource substitution mechanism explains the age divergence through stronger effects of three mediating resources – work fulfillment, the sense of control, and social support – on mental health in non-employed status of which probability increases with age. The protective effects of these SES- or workrelated mediating resources are greater among retirees and homemakers. Consistent with the cross-sectional findings, results of the latent growth-curve models show that the age trajectories of depression between the better-educated and the less-educated diverge across successive life stages, but the income-based gap in depression shows convergence in old age, a pattern that supports the age-as-leveler hypothesis. According to an additional analysis utilizing aging-vector graphs, there are inter-cohort trends relatively favoring higher SES groups in terms of mental health, and it suggests that the impact of education on depression is stronger in more recent birth cohorts. Additional analyses examine the dynamic relationship between work quality and psychological well-being. The results of latent growth-curve modeling demonstrate that stable, positive work quality produces divergence in both depression and anxiety across all adult ages, compared to the stable, negative work group. Persons who experience decline in work quality lose their advantage in mental health, and persons who experience improvement in work quality gain advantage. Fulfilling work is important for the psychological well-being of older adults, and nonroutine work is important for the psychological well-being of younger adults.