Early retirement is losing its appeal

Value Judgments

Your Money

June 05, 2005|By Janet Kidd Stewart

ANOTHER brass ring is shifting.

Not even two decades ago, a key marker of financial success was early retirement. And the earlier the better. Merger waves of the 1980s pumped thousands of managers into early-retirement packages, perceived as coveted rewards.

The scene is different for today's financial titans, said Ken Dychtwald, a gerontologist and founder of Age Wave, a San Francisco firm that counsels large employers on work force issues.

He points to Alan Greenspan, leading the Federal Reserve Bank at age 79; Rupert Murdoch still battling for domination of the media industry at 74, and Warren E. Buffett, also 74, still leading the faithful at Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

"There is clearly a movement that continuing to work is not only necessary but enjoyable," says Dychtwald, who completed a global survey of attitudes about retirement for financial supermarket HSBC last month. "Now the higher achievers are the least likely to want to retire early."

In a survey of more than 11,000 people in 10 countries, including the United States, 80 percent said mandatory retirement should be abolished, and a majority expected to continue working after they have retired from their main careers.

Whether we jumped into this trend or was pushed by the demographics of longevity and rising burdens on Social Security, it appears that a majority of workers expect to work later into their old age and that they want to.

The problem with all these positive images of aging is that it doesn't always work out the way we want.

John Campbell, 55, is four years into his retirement from corporate America. He spent his last few years of a 25-year career with Union Carbide as an executive in charge of international customer service. When the company merged with Dow Chemical in 2001, he decided to take an early-retirement offer.

His first move was to open a restaurant, which made its debut one week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Tourism in Florida plummeted, and the restaurant closed after a little more than a year.

"Then I decided to do nothing," said Campbell, who lives in Melbourne, Fla. "But all the people my age were still working, and I got bored very quickly."

Campbell drives a school bus and manages his retirement portfolio by trading stocks. He has done well, recovering the money he lost on the restaurant business, but he said he would love to find more engaging work. "You get very nice rejection letters, but you can tell they are looking for a younger person," says.

The problem for many people such as Campbell is that even though a handful of companies are getting more aggressive about hiring older workers, it isn't the norm.

He recently signed on to www.seniors4hire.org, a Web site dedicated to matching older workers with businesses willing to hire them.

There is some anecdotal evidence that at least some older workers are staying on the payroll longer.

One of the most pressing problems for the Service Corps of Retired Workers, a service that uses volunteer retirees to help train entrepreneurs, is finding experienced volunteers who have left the work force, said Jim Pyles, the group's chairman.

"The retirement packages today are different than a few years ago. We're in a crisis trying to find volunteers because so many people are unable to retire because they need to stay on for the medical benefits."

E-mail Janet Kidd Stewart at yourmoney@tribune.com.

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