'Unretirement' is the new retirement [Commentary]

We say we want to work, and it's not about the money

June 16, 2014|Susan Reimer

These days, I find myself looking back on my father's work life with a mix of nostalgia and envy.

He worked for 40 years for the same company and never worried that Alcoa would go out of business or that his industry would become obsolete. He had setbacks in his upward mobility, but he never worried about being laid off. He married, bought a house and raised four daughters.

His ego was bruised when he was asked to retire early, but then soothed by the generous settlement and retirement package. Like most of his generation, he did not live long enough to endure senility. His pension and health care benefits were there for my mother when he died, and she wanted for nothing.

My father's work life was all so automatic. As if no decisions were required on his part.

Today, for me and my Baby Boomer fellows, retirement requires more planning, projecting, soul-searching, consulting — and hope — than did any other decision in our lives. If, that is, our employers do not make it for us and our bodies do not fail us.

But a new study reveals that we "pre-retirees," as we are called, don't expect to retire and don't really want to retire. Not at 65, anyway.

"Work in Retirement: Myths and Motivations" is a survey done by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave of 1,856 working retirees and 5,000 pre-retirees and non-working retirees.

It found that 72 percent of pre-retirees (age 50 and over) say they want to keep on working. And 47 percent of retirees say they are either working or have worked. It looks like working in retirement — or "unretirement" as writer Chris Ferrell calls it — will be the new norm.

That's good news for the American economy. Fully a quarter of the population is a member of the Baby Boom generation, and more than a quarter million of us turn 65 every month. Retirees not only don't produce anything, they don't purchase very much either. And consumption drives employment and the economy in this country.

Many of us were scared away from retirement by the recession, but the economy is improving and more of us now have the confidence to retire. The retirement rate has moved up from 10 percent in 2010 to 17 percent today.

Still, dire reports appear almost daily that more and more of us are without the safety net of a pension plan, and we have not saved enough on our own to last our longer lifetimes.

So, perhaps the biggest surprise in the Merrill Lynch-Age Wave survey is this: We aren't working in retirement just because we need the money. "To stay mentally active" was the No. 1 reason retirees say they are working, by a margin of 2 to 1. "The money" was reason No. 4, after staying physically active, social connections and a sense of self-worth.

My father went from working 9 to 5, five days a week for 40 years to full stop. Then he grew tomatoes, African violets, played a little golf and watched more of it.

Retirement, according to this study, is no longer a state of being. It is a series of transitions. First is pre-retirement (5 years), during which we are working full-time but planning our future.

Career intermission (2.5 years) during which we take a break from work. (This can be a dangerous step, experts warn. Skills decline, making re-entry difficult. And older people who have been out of work are, frankly, not attractive hires.)

Re-engagement, (9 years) during which we try to find work that has meaning, flexibility and perhaps income. If we are lucky.

If 72 percent of us plan to work in retirement, it is sobering to learn from the Employee Benefits Research Institute Retirement Confidence Survey than just 27 percent of retirees actually are working.

The final phase is called "leisure" by the authors of the study. Our "retirement" might be 20 to 30 years long. Few of us want to still be working when we are 85.

How best to make this complex transition from work to leisure? Look around, take classes, volunteer. See what it is you might like to do next.

Talk to working retirees, ask how they did it. Talk to your employer. Part-time, seasonal or contract work may be more possible than you thought.

And spend some time thinking. You have a lifetime of experiences to call upon. See what you have learned about how you would like to spend the rest of your life.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @Susan Reimer on Twitter.com.

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