Boomers in the Age of “Unretirement”

The first wave of U.S. baby boomers to reach age 65 started on January 1,  2011.

The U.S. Census Bureau calculates that by 2020 55.9 million people in the U.S. will be 65 or older, and by 2030 that number will reach 72.7 million.

How will all these boomers thrive in the 21st century? By staying in the workforce, at least minimally on a part-time basis, and not fully retiring, say many experts on aging.  As noted by Gallup in Many Baby Boomers Reluctant to Retire, “nearly half of boomers still working say they don’t expect to retire until they are 66 or older, including one in 10 who predict they will never retire.”

 Boomers don’t consider themselves old until around 72 years of age, claimed a Pew Research Center study. Long held culturally and historically embedded notions about how to retire are becoming outdated. Many boomers no longer see themselves playing shuffle board, golfing, fishing and generally relaxing for the remainder of their days. Plus, age-related scientists are now saying that a life overly focused on leisure and passive entertainment could actually promote poor health.

A 2014 study conducted by the National Institute of Aging-funded Rush University Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, points to living a life of purpose (identified as having a strong sense of meaning, which frequently comes from significant paid employment and/or volunteer work) as highly conducive to reducing one’s susceptibility to stroke, dementia, movement problems, disability and premature death.

In short, full retirement is not a smart option.

An expansive cottage industry supports an opting-out-of-retirement boomer explosion. The AARP’s Life Reimagined site, for example, has a strong focus on assisting boomers with remaining active in the labor force. Since 2006, the growing Encore.org, an organization known for “advancing second acts for the greater good” has provided numerous services related to aging boomers, including the “The Purpose Prize,” awarded to more than 500 over-60 innovators who have brought their skills and talents to communities all over the world.

Aging Experts Endorse Active Engagement
To further elaborate on this trend of aging boomers staying on the future of work treadmill, I talked with Chris Farrell, author of Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing The Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life;  Nancy Collamer, author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit from Your Passions During Semi-Retirement and owner of an informational site for boomers called mylifestylecareer.com; and Paul Irving, editor of The Upside of Aging and Chairman of the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging.

“There are a lot of organizations all over the country that are coalescing around this working longer theme and helping people figure it out,” Farrell said. “People are using different phrases such as meaning and money, passion and a paycheck and this notion of reimagining and rethinking.”

“The big thing is that people are living longer,” Collamer said. “So you have a dynamic where people work in their primary careers for as long as 40 years, give or take, and then they could be looking at a retirement that lasts 30 years – that is a lot of years to fill and a lot of years to fund.”

Not Without Challenges
Irving explained how a variety of challenging circumstances are often the root cause for boomers not retiring. “There are different reasons why retirement is changing,” he said. “Many people have dramatically inadequate and in some cases no savings beyond social security. The increasing costs of healthcare and housing present a remarkable challenge. The opportunity to generate income for a longer period of time is not an elective for fun and interests. It is a need for resources and the opportunity to maintain an acceptable life.”

According to a Fidelity Investment retirement health care cost estimate, “a couple, both aged 65 and retiring this year, can now expect to spend an estimated $245,000 on health care throughout retirement, up from $220,000 last year. The figure has increased 29 percent since 2005 when it was $190,000.”

Overall, there’s plenty to scrutinize and act on, both politically and socially, to ensure that the aging  boomer generation gets the support they need to keep working productively. “More people are having conversations about it,” Farrell said. “We do not have enough institutionalized offerings like phased retirement programs and flexible work schedules. There are a lot of laws that make it difficult for companies to rehire part-time, former employees. There is a lot of underbrush to be cleaned out so that it becomes much simpler for people to keep working.” He added that the politicos in D.C. “do not have a clue. This is not entering into the political discourse.”

“As a general matter, this [referring to enabling aging boomers to be productive workers] is one of those great challenges we need to address as a society,” Irving said. “Both as individuals and as a broader society, we should be encouraging it, enabling it, celebrating it, and making sure that it is an opportunity for all of those who choose to do it.”

Collamer referred to the historical dismantling and decrease in pension funds and other employer-paid retirement funding opportunities. “As more employers start to face the so-called brain drain of losing key talent in institutional knowledge, hopefully we will start to see a rise in employers who will start to offer their employees some form of retirement,” she said. In addition, Collamer described the problem of age discrimination in the work place as being “real, with a lot of people experiencing difficulties finding good, quality part-time work after they retire from their full-time jobs.”

In typical boomer fashion, however, they are starting to tackle such challenges in a 21st century way, by going online. “The opportunities for doing things like freelancing and consulting work and establishing products and services that you sell on the web have become real possibilities for boomers,” Collamer said. “The amount of money required to start online businesses is far less than if you were to try to establish a brick and mortar business.”

In his recent post, Gig Economy: Better for Boomers Than Millennials, on the PBS Next Avenue blog for people over 50, Ferrell wrote that “boomers will increasingly and gladly gear up for the gig economy as they enter their 60s and 70s. Already, Uber says more of its drivers are over 50 than under 30 and that about a quarter of its drivers are 50 and older. Last year, incidentally, Uber and AARP’s Life Reimagined teamed up to help Uber find more 50+ drivers.”

To borrow a popular phrase from the psychedelic 60s, boomers, figuratively speaking, still turn on and tune in, but they have no intentions to drop out.

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