Is this the end of retirement as we know it?

The ‘retirement ideal’ has been changing for years. Older people are
increasingly unretiring, changing the shape of this life stage.

Picture retirement in your head. It’s a laughing, grey-haired couple
sipping piña coladas on a white sand beach; perhaps they’re getting
some liquid courage for their skydive later. Not a care in the world,
their only responsibility is getting their grandchildren good gifts
for their birthdays. It’s a beautiful fantasy – and for many retirees,
present and future, it’s just that: a fantasy.

The concept of retirement as we know it is changing and has been for a
long time. The number of people working past retirement age has grown
consistently since the 1990s. In the US, 32% of people aged 65 to 69
were in work in 2017, far more than the 22% who were working in 1994.
In the UK, employment rates for people older than 65 doubled between
1993 and 2018.

Then came Covid-19. “Society was already poised for a real shift in
how it’s thinking about retirement,” says Michelle Silver, associate
professor of gerontology at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
“But the pandemic has definitely exacerbated it.”

When the pandemic hit, labor trends went awry. First, there was an
exodus of older professionals from the workforce; in the UK, at least
an extra 250,000 50- to 64-year-olds left, while more than 3 million
Americans retired early.

Now, however, as inflation spikes, the number of people coming out of
retirement is growing. In the US, job site Indeed reports
‘unretirement’ levels are at 3.3%, much higher than the sub-3% average
seen since 2017. In the UK, Indeed saw a spike in 55-to-64 year-olds
‘urgently seeking work’, while another survey found that two-thirds of
people who retired during the pandemic expect to keep working in some
form.

Gaëlle Blake, UK, and Ireland director for permanent appointments at
recruitment firm Hays say she believes “this is the start of a
phenomenon where people are feeling the pressure financially, so they
will come back to work”. Whether that’s part-time, full-time, or a
side gig, people are increasingly expecting and needing to work past
the traditional retirement age – perhaps permanently reshaping our
idea of what this life stage might look like

‘Our savings have gone down

While there are several factors behind retirees’ return to the
workforce, it’s clear that concerns linked to the cost of living are
currently a major motivator. In the UK, of the over-50s who have
returned to work since leaving during the pandemic, 48% said they did
so because they needed money, while 23% said they couldn’t afford to
retire.

Blake says she’s seen retirees’ positions change dramatically during
the pandemic. Early on, they were leaving the workforce in droves,
partly due to fears linked to Covid-19, but also to do with their
assets; house prices started soaring, and investments were up. “It
would have meant their pension programs were very high, their houses
were valued very high.” But now, she says, inflation means people
don’t feel as comfortable as they did a year ago. “People are
definitely wanting to come back to work.”

It’s a similar story in the US. Anthony retired from his job at a
shipping multinational in January 2020. He took his package early, in
his late 50s, because he was tired of working for corporate America
and a boss he didn’t like. But his retirement plan didn’t account for
historic inflation increases. “Everything that we had planned for the
future was based on having X amount invested,” he says. “But this year
has been such a correction, our savings have gone down 20%.”

Luckily for Anthony, he had already rejoined the workforce when his
investments started to drop, and the cost of living began to rise. A
year into the pandemic, his former company called him, told him his
old boss was gone, and asked if he wanted to come back to work on a
project.

“The deal is they’re paying me basically the same salary as I was
making. And that’s on top of my retirement [pension],” says Anthony.
He believes they brought him back to plug a skills shortage. “Whenever
you have a mass exodus from a company, you lose knowledge,” he says.
“Sometimes you need fresh blood to get new ideas. But sometimes, to
get things done quickly, you need older blood that knows how to get it
done. And I’m in that latter half.”

It’s really important to recognize that retirement is just a phase
that was invented, it’s not a natural progression or an essential
stage of life – Michelle Silver

Many retirees are being courted by companies with skilled vacancies to
fill. In the UK, the unemployment rate is 3.7%, the lowest it’s been
in 50 years. “But there’s also a record number of jobs,” says Blake.
“So, you’ve got no talent pool.” She says the people who’ve chosen to
retire are exactly the people that are needed in the labor market –
knowledge workers like teachers, nurses, doctors, surveyors, and
technology professionals. “Where there is demand, they have the
matching skill set,” says Blake. “They are the missing people.”

In the US, where unemployment is the lowest it’s been since the 1960s,
unretirement is being touted as a solution to a raft of labor
shortages – and many retirees are on board. Richard Sartiano retired
from a medical device company in April 2021, but only a few months
later – motivated by both rising living costs and boredom – he was job
hunting again.

“I wanted to do something productive,” says Sartiano. “One of my
children suggested I take up painting.” Instead, he applied for a
director position at Purdue University, Indiana. “I wanted something
challenging,” he says. “I have a pretty good education and I still
want to use it.” Just a year after retiring, Sartiano had a new,
full-time job.

Flexible retirement

While returning to full-time employment may work for some older
workers, other retirees are seeking more flexible employment. In the
UK, of the 50-to-70-year-olds who left the workforce during the
pandemic, 69% of those looking to come back want to work part-time –
planning a semi-retirement, rather than a fully-fledged one.

New Jersey-based Richard Eisenberg, who started his semi-retirement
from journalism in January 2022, divides his time among writing
part-time and volunteering, mentoring, and experimenting with new
challenges he didn’t have time for when he was in full-time work.
Eisenberg says he’s “glad to have the extra income”, because the
possibility of running out of money is always a back-of-the-mind
concern, even though he and his wife have built up solid pension pots.
But he’s also keen to keep working for mental stimulation. “I’m not
somebody who plays golf,” he says, “so I just felt like if I wasn’t
going to be doing some kind of work, I wouldn’t know what to do with
myself. And I would get pretty bored, possibly depressed, and I didn’t
want that to happen.”

Unhappiness in retirement is a well-documented issue. Silver, of the
University of Toronto Scarborough, says retirement can be “an
incredibly dissatisfying experience” for those whose personal and work
identities are intertwined. She suggests the pandemic offered many
people a preview of retirement – being with your partner all day, or
alone all day, without the traditional structures of work – and that
some people who traditionally would have retired by now realized the
lifestyle didn’t appeal to them.

Plus, as flexible work practices increasingly become the norm, it’s
become much easier to continue to do some work from a retirement
setting – as Annie Llewellyn discovered. She retired 10 years ago,
after a career as a university lecturer. “The first year, I really
enjoyed it,” she says. “But then I realized, I didn’t have enough
money to really support myself.” So, she took on freelance work, such
as marking papers and giving lectures. “Now I really enjoy the
flexibility of having a retirement income plus a job,” says Llewellyn,
who lives between Italy and a shared house in Wales.

Since the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of more flexible
working practices, Llewellyn has found it much easier to maintain her
unretired lifestyle. “Coronavirus changed the world of homeworking,”
she says. “I don’t work full time by any means, I wouldn’t want that,
but I think it’s a new stage of life.”

A natural progression?

If current cost-of-living concerns ease, it’s possible that some older
workers will no longer feel the need to be employed past retirement.
But general trends – we’re living and working longer, and many of us
aren’t saving adequate pension pots – suggest that ‘retirement’, for
many, will include working in some form.

The shift to flexible work, however, could benefit both today’s
retirees and also the younger workers lamented as the generations who
will never be able to afford to retire. Before, the wealth gap between
boomers and later generations might have meant many people toiling
away at their desks well into their 70s.

But flexible working offers a new option – a different version of the
beachy retirement fantasy. Last week, Llewellyn took a weekend trip to
Corfu with a friend. “I was working for a few hours, but I was
swimming, too,” she says.

This flexible version of retirement won’t be available to everyone,
but it is an indicator of how the concept itself can and should
evolve. “I think it’s really important to recognize that retirement is
just a phase that was invented, it’s not a natural progression or an
essential stage of life,” says Silver. “I think that now, lots more
people will questions what it means, and whether it is really a life
goal for everyone.”

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