For years, Ed Fischer, 69, worked as a bank executive while his wife, Jeanie, 66, worked at a large pharmaceutical company. They raised kids and then they retired.
But not the old retired; the new retired.
Ed and Jeanie no longer toil at their professional jobs, but they’re working almost as hard on their passion—farming 85 acres in suburban Indianapolis. They mostly sell cut flowers at their roadside stand. Jeanie is famous throughout the region for her fresh-from-the-garden bouquets in canning jars with ribbon accents. “If our health holds out, we will do this as long as we can,” Ed says with a laugh. “You’ll know when Jeannie and I are truly retired. It’s when we sell the farm—or when we’ve truly bought the farm.”
Sally Haver, 71, lives in New York City and can’t imagine giving up her job as a senior vice president at career services firm The Ayers Group. She finds her work engaging and demanding (in a good way), and, just as important, she feels valued. “I can’t think of anything more interesting to do than what I’m currently doing,” she says. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I retired. Among my peers, a lot of people might not be working a 60-hour week, but they’re definitely working because it’s a lot more interesting than not.”
These folks are among the legions of Americans 65 and older who are eschewing the rocking chair and the golf course for a chance to continue working. Some, like Sally, remain on their lifelong career paths while others, like Ed and Jeannie, are diverging to entrepreneurial ventures, consulting, or part-time work.
But working they are.
The portion of Americans aged 65 and older in the work force has increased markedly in recent years. In 2010, an average of 17.4 percent of them were in the labor force, up from 10.8 percent in 1985, according to an analysis by AARP using U.S. government figures. And during the recession of recent years, the number of older folks in the work force swelled by 1 million workers. Specific reasons for remaining on the job are as diverse as older workers themselves. The recession has certainly shrunk many retirement nesteggs, requiring folks to work longer—or making them nervous enough that they think they should. But it’s not only about being too short on cash to retire.
“A lot of people are shifting to something that is a real passion as opposed to working to get money,” said Lita Epstein, author of Working After Retirement for Dummies. “People find it hard to sit around and play mahjong or golf all day.” Additional reasons to stay on the job include:
The nature of work. The decline in manufacturing and the rise of service industries means most work in America today is physically easier than it was a generation ago. Working in an office cubicle with a computer, a desk, and a phone is a far cry from laboring in a garment factory or steel mill.
Telecommuting. In a development that would have seemed futuristic even 15 years ago, many older folks are staying in touch with the office via Internet connection and a phone, allowing them to continue full or part time in a field where they are highly skilled—without the drudgery of commuting to an office.
The need to stay engaged. For many professionals, retiring is an abrupt break in much more than just a paycheck. The day-to-day of office life is a defining part of who they are and how they fit into society at large. In fact, walking away from an energizing, fulfilling occupation may be so demoralizing that it can lead to a decline in health. The recent book The Longevity Project documents a 90-year study of 1,528 Americans and found that those who lived active, involved lives and continued to work lived the longest. “Everybody has the ideas—don’t stress, don’t worry, don’t work so hard, retire and go play golf,” writes Howard Friedman, a psychology professor at University of California-Riverside and co-author of the book. “We did not find these patterns to exist in people who thrived.”
Demographers and retirement experts see the phenomenon of working well beyond traditional retirement age as a permanent shift. “I think we’re in a new normal,” says Dallas L. Salisbury, president and CEO of the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI). “There is a wake-up taking place.”
That shift is dramatic. In 1991, half of workers planned to retire by age 65. Today, it’s just 23 percent, according to the EBRI 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey—at 21 years, the longest-running annual retirement survey. Its results jibe with those from the Pew Research Center, which further found that 16 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 say that they never expect to stop working. Case in point: Writer Joan Rattner Heilman of Mamaroneck, New York, is well into what might be called her retirement years but has decided to keep angling for writing assignments. “I seem to need some structure in my life,” Joan says. “I’m not good at hanging out all day.”
That’s not to say Joan is a workaholic. She plays tennis, volunteers, and tends to her garden during warm-weather months. But her “Puritan work ethic” tells her she needs to accomplish something before she can play. So Heilman continues to write. “I have the kind of job that has no age limit,” she says. “You can write until your brain goes.”
Joan also concedes that the money does matter to her. Being paid for her labor signifies her continuing usefulness to society. “I like to have something I’m paid for. It reinforces my identity as being a writer,” she says.
None of this is to discount the very real importance of needing money to pay for healthcare—not to mention food and shelter. In the simplest of terms, it costs more today to grow old than it ever did in the past, if only because we can expect to live so much longer. The average life expectancy in 1930 was about 60 years. Today it is 78 years. “There’s a growing recognition that ‘I may live a long time,’” says Salisbury. “People are starting to realize, ‘I shouldn’t be planning for average life expectancy; I should plan on living to 100.’”
As for that planning thing, for many it hasn’t been going so well. Certainly boomers, the first of whom began turning 65 this year, have been notorious for building up debt and failing to save. But not all of their retirement problems are of their own making. The percentage of Americans with defined pensions has fallen substantially in recent decades. And many 401(k) plans and IRAs have taken a beating in the recent recession.
Compounding things, many Americans got spooked at the peak of the recent recession and pulled their money out at the bottom of the market—the exact wrong time, Epstein says. Even those with solid savings who’d prudently placed their money in fixed-income products years earlier are looking at returns that are a mere trickle compared to even 10 years ago. A further problem is that homes today—for many, the bedrock of savings—are worth significantly less.
What it all adds up to is worry. Concern about the ability to afford a comfortable retirement is at a record high, according to the EBRI study. A full 27 percent of workers today say they are not at all confident about having enough money to retire. That’s up dramatically from just a year ago, when 22 percent lacked that confidence. “I need to be sure there’s enough money in the coffers to take care of anything that needs to be taken care of,” says Sally Haver. She’s speaking not just of her own future needs but also those of her disabled son.
Retirement was once part and parcel of the American Dream. Along with some notion of prosperity–of living better than our parents did–the Dream came with an implied life plan. You work hard while you’re young, maybe buy a house and raise a family, and then rest easy after the rings on the old tree trunk number 62 or 65. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. In fact, for many, the notion of continuing to work past retirement age has clearly gone from a negative to a positive. “If working is not odious—if you don’t wake up every day and feel like you’re on the torture rack—you should just keep doing it,” says Sally.