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To retire or not to retire?

For many workers, the “new retirement” is no retirement

Tonya Thompson.

U-M’s Tonya Thompson retired, regretted it, and returned to a job she hopes will last for years. (Image courtesy of ISR.) Read Tonya’s story.

Back when baby boomers were young—and sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll were at their height—many commentators questioned what this feckless generation of do-nothings boded for the future of the country. Who was going to run the government, engage in commerce, teach the young, provide services? Who was going to do all the work?

Wouldn’t those commentators be surprised. Because the boomers now hitting retirement age are hanging onto their jobs like pit bulls, and sometimes forgetting to retire altogether. In fact, it would be easy to conclude that boomers—people born between 1946 and 1964—are a bunch of workaholics.

The reality is more complicated than that. But there’s no question the average retirement age of American workers is rising, and not just among boomers. Close to 24 percent of men aged 70-74 still work, up about seven percent from 10 years ago, and one-in-three men aged 65-69 are still on the job, according to recent data from the Thomson/Reuters University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers. Women are staying in their jobs longer, as well. More than 14 percent of women aged 70-74 are still employed, an increase of about three percent in the last decade, and one-in-four women aged 65-69 currently work, up almost six percent.

Substantial numbers of more senior Americans—those 75 or older—also are working: one-in-10 men and one-in-20 women. “For most of the 20th century we saw retirement ages fall while life expectancy rose,” says David Weir, a research professor at the Institute for Social Research (ISR) and director of the Health and Retirement Study. “About 20 years ago, the trend in retirement age reversed, and it has been inching up slowly ever since.”

Money for the golden years

People are retiring later for a lot of reasons, but a key one is economic. Employer health insurance benefits for retirees are eroding, spurring many employees to hold out until they qualify for Medicare at age 65. Changes to Social Security, such as the increase in the age at which people can receive full benefits from 65 to 67, also may be playing a role. And people are living longer, requiring additional savings to support those extra years.

How people amass those retirement savings has also undergone a sea change. Employer-provided defined benefit pensions, which typically were structured to provide maximum benefits at or before normal retirement age, are mostly a thing of the past now, making early retirement less affordable. Their replacements, defined contribution plans, accrue until an employee leaves and don’t penalize late retirement. They also require employees to manage their own accounts, which can expose savers to financial risk.

Judy Nowack.

U-M’s Judith Nowack plotted a careful course to retirement that included a drop to part-time status. (Image courtesy of ISR.) Read Judith’s story.

Indeed, many retirement and savings plans took a severe hit during the recent economic downturn, a hit that was particularly devastating for those nearing or already in retirement. Some 40 percent of older Americans delayed retirement in the years after the Great Recession, according to an analysis of data from ISR’s Health and Retirement Study and its Cognitive Economics Study.

“The typical household lost about five percent of its total wealth between the summers of 2008 and 2009,” says ISR economist Brooke Helppie McFall. People don’t intend to work long enough to recoup all the money they lost, McFall says, but on average, those who postponed retirement expect to work about 1.6 years longer than planned.

And even as the economy has begun to turn around, many households still find themselves facing a more precarious future. “While the stock market has recovered most of its pre-recession value, housing prices have not, and for most people their house is their biggest asset,” says ISR’s David Weir.

Loving the job

Of course, economic motivations are just part of the older worker phenomenon. Many married men are likely to stay on the job longer now because their wives are working. Couples typically want to coordinate their retirements, and if a wife is working until age 62 or 65, that’s an incentive for her often slightly older husband to keep working, too. And some people aren’t retiring for a simpler reason: they love their jobs.

Ron Inglehart.

U-M’s Ronald Inglehart considered retiring at 70 but is still working at 78. (Image courtesy of ISR.) Read Ronald’s story.

Not surprisingly, working beyond normal retirement age by choice is particularly common among the wealthier and more highly educated, those who are likely to have better health and jobs they can still do effectively at an advanced age. (Workers in low-paying and physically demanding jobs often are ready to retire as soon as finances allow.) Overall, many more jobs than before rely on cognitive skills, rather than physical abilities, studies show, and the number of retirement-age employees who are physically able to do work into later years has increased, as well.

Finally, fear of change and the unknown may keep some people at their desks. Karen Semenuk and Lorna Hurl run retirement workshops and meet with individual employees as part of U-M’s Faculty and Staff Assistance Program. They deal not with the economic repercussions of pending retirement, but with the emotional ones. “People who are very identified with either their profession or their work wonder what happens when that’s no longer how they define themselves,” Semenuk says. “How do I define myself?”

A gradual fade

Although people are working longer, most still decide to retire at some point. But even that process has changed. According to an analysis of Health and Retirement Study participants born between 1942 and 1947 that appeared in the January 2009 edition of Research on Aging, nearly two-thirds of those who retired from full-time work passed through some sort of bridge job—either part time or of short duration—before leaving the work force entirely.

“Our findings further reinforce the notion that for many older Americans, retirement is a process, not a single event,” wrote the authors of Bridge Jobs: A Comparison Across Cohorts. “Only a minority of older Americans now retire all at once, with a onetime, permanent exit from the labor force.”

Working part time may seem an obvious bridge step. More surprising is the move to different full-time work after retirement. Nicole Maestas, a RAND economist and researcher with U-M’s Michigan Retirement Research Council, says the number of people who retire, take a break for a couple of years, and then return to work has been increasing since the early 1990s; some 40 percent of workers between the ages of 51 and 61 who stop work will return in some full-time capacity, according to her analysis of data from the Health and Retirement Study. Maestas, who has coined the term “unretirement” for this phenomenon, at first expected to find that the main factor pushing such returns would be unexpected financial hardships. Instead, she found the trend most pronounced among better-off, more educated workers who had stated their intentions to return to work prior to retirement, and who often chose to switch industries or occupations.

“People don’t want to stop working, but they don’t necessarily want to keep doing the same thing they’ve done.” Maestas says. And having access to pension funds or Social Security payments or both makes such a change much more feasible. “It’s like a chance to do the thing you’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “You’ve got this new freedom to take a break without that social stigma and to try something new in a safe way.” (Maestas notes that her data preceded the Great Recession; a larger percentage of people may now be returning to work who fit her original financial hardship assumption.)

Dollars and sense

So is there an economic downside to the number of older workers still on the job? Yes and no. U-M and many other universities generally offer a finite number of jobs: If older faculty and staff aren’t leaving, there are fewer opportunities to bring in new blood. But ISR’s David Weir is quick to point out that universities shouldn’t be seen as a microcosm of the country overall. The national economy can create new jobs and new ways for people to participate in the workforce. “The kinds of policies that seek to force older people out to create jobs for others don’t end up creating any more jobs,” Weir says.

And the positives of later retirement for society and individuals—including easing potential labor shortages, producing more goods and services, funding Social Security and Medicare, postponing claims on those public funds, and shoring up personal assets for a more financially stable future—speak for themselves.

Besides, those who aren’t able to retire as early as they wanted can comfort themselves with this: A recent study drawing on data from the Health and Retirement Study and its international sister studies suggests that working longer may help to preserve memory and other cognitive abilities, even when the work itself isn’t mentally stimulating.

“There is evidence that social skills and personality skills—getting up in the morning, dealing with people, knowing the value of being prompt and trustworthy—are also important,” Robert Willis, a U-M professor of economics, ISR researcher, and one of the authors of the study recently told The New York Times. “They go hand in hand with the work environment.”

This feature originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of U-M’s Institute for Social Research magazine, ISR Sampler.


  1. Molly Wright

    I found this article most interesting. I’ll turn 65 in August 2013, and I plan to keep working for at least 2 more years (financial need mostly). The article does not talk much about the UoM perspective as the employer of an aging workforce…that would be interesting as well.


  2. Rod Vaughn - 1980

    I am almost 55 years old. I become eligible to retire next year but, because of paying off debt, plan on working until I am 62.


  3. Richard Hewer - 1964

    I am 71 and still working as a professor. The work is better than ever and so is the pay. I get enough time off to fully enjoy my 16 grandchildren and because I am still working, I can afford to take them on vacations and have a grand-camp every year.


  4. Kevin Welksh - 1975

    I love what I do and am at the top of my game at 61. It is intellectually stimulating, involves dealing with great clients and prospects, involves traveling and living well, basically a lifestyle as much as a job. As long as I can handle the travel, ski 50 days a year, fly fish 50 days a year and continue to have fun I am good to go into my 70s. Keeps me young and for now I can only drive in 5th gear…


  5. Susana Uballe - '79

    As someone 63 planning my retirement from FT work but reopening my part time private practice I may prove your point. Just one quibble however. Many of those mentioned as staying on well past retirement age are not boomers. Our oldest haven’t hit 70 yet.


  6. Nick Nahat - 1990

    This is quite a slant. Retiring is a lot easier if you have a cushy university desk job, immune from a competitive market.


  7. Barbara Ladewski - BS ('73); MS ('75); PhD ('06)

    The article would benefit, I think, by including a history of the concept of “retirement,” which became a popular concept with the advent of social security benefits in the late 1930’s. Retirement is not typically a widely distributed phenomenon in agrarian societies. Thus, in the long expanse of human history, retirement is a rather recent phenomenon, perhaps mostly the result of low wage and high stress industrial-age jobs that used people up and encouraged competition for jobs between younger and older workers. It would seem that the 20th century concept of “retirement” might benefit from a little “deconstruction.”
    I think the article might also benefit from considerably more emphasis on the central importance of challenging, interesting, meaningful tasks that we humans have responsibility for carrying out to maintaining human mental health. In my research area of social/affective cognition, there seems to be growing evidence that having a meaning and purpose and need for living that for most folks is not fulfilled by golf and shuffleboard is key to remaining a capable competent human being. “Use it or lose it” appears to be particularly relevant for brain connections and capacity. Thus the large fraction of the volunteer corps of this country that is filled by “retirees”–who are being “paid” by their retirement savings and government social security to donate their services to causes of their choice. The concept of a particular developmental stage of life labelled “senior”–which also seems to have originated at the same time as social security benefits and the concept of retirement–seems also to warrant a little “deconstructing.”


  8. Miriam David - 1967

    Yes, I, too, am still working as director of Berea College Health Service. Turned 68 this month and hope to work until next June 30th. I received a nursing degree from UM, then an MSPH from University of Missouri, then MD from University of Kentucky. My loyalty remains with my first alma mater!!


  9. Marsha Webb

    At age 64 I’m enjoying my job more than ever. I jokingly comment it staves off Alzheimer’s. The only downside is my hour commute from Detroit to Ann Arbor every morning/evening and many days being stuck in traffic makes a great case for retirement. However, I’m considering moving to the Ann Arbor area so I can continue working without the commuter headaches.


  10. Bill Mosby - 1971, 1977

    I don’t remember being cast as a “feckless do-nothing” back in the day. In fact, I remember being told how the boomer generation was going to do great things based on the number of us going to college compared to previous generations. And looking back, I think we did. Considering the well-reported tendency of boomers’ kids to live with their parents into their 30s, it’s not too much of a wonder that a significant portion of us are still working. Not me, though- my children are already well into their careers, so I decided to retire early and am now happily ensconced in a “career” as the volunteer webmaster for my bicycle club.


  11. Rose Tucker

    I am 55 years old. I continue to work because I love working with students and staff. I have been in the work force for 40+ years and enjoy what I do. I had worked in the private sector for many years before coming to work for the UofM. I have been happy here for well over 20 years. I hope to retire some time in the next 10-15 years. However, financially I could not afford to retire at this time due to the significant change in finance that would take place. Paying bills and surviving the changes it would cause plays a part in why I continue to work but not the only reasons.


  12. Marilee Shore - 1972

    I’m doing it backwards. After retiring at age 55 to care for my aging mother, then care for my husband, who was 20 yrs older than I, I am now looking to re-enter the workforce. Anyone need a 66 yr old trainee? Marilee Shore


  13. Anonymous

    The article paints a rather rosey picture of the “process” of retirement. MOST people’s work is very physical;some even have had to work 2 jobs for many years to make ends meet. “Delaying” retirement due to the increase in age at which we can retire at full benefits is a HARDSHIP for these people, and it dismays me that information such as in this article is used to justify changes in social security that would require people to work longer. Working longer means working harder for most people.


  14. Liz Hawthorne - 1981 1985

    I have retired twice. Most recently I took a sabbatical from retirement for a full time interim dean position and had a ball! On to retirement again with lots of plans for consulting, traveling, grandparenting, and the like. I will be happy to be free of bureaucracy and paperwork and own my own time.


  15. Tina Bell - 1980

    The article says “and some are forgetting to retire altogether.” I just can’t relate or understand this mentality. These people must not be working jobs that are hard and timeoff-restrictive. For me, work is WORK.


  16. arch copeland - 1968

    As a small business owner I don’t think there are a finite number of jobs out there. When people need to work to live they tend to find something or start there own self employment gig. We have seen a lot of this since 2008. The safety net really helps but it can often slow down reemployment as people use the stretched out safety net to pick and choose, more so at the blue collar level than the white collar level. A good education, I believe, gives you more resources to get back on your feet if you happen to get knocked down.


  17. Darlene Workman

    Thanks for this e-mail. I turned 72 today, and am headed back to work as a school nurse in the fall. This is good to hear since I have not felt the urge to retire. Just having tooo much fun… 🙂


  18. Brenda Anderson

    Don’t let the graduation year fool ya! I was 52 years old when I received a graduate degree. I left the labor market in 2002 to care for an ill parent. After my mom passed, it took two years of looking before I found a job. I was either overqualified, or lacked the experience required for the job. When I finally re-entered the labor market, I worked a series of low-paying jobs.
    In my view, I think continuing to work after reaching the so-called retirement age might be a lot easier than securing a decent job after reaching the age of 62. However, I’ve never really given up my search, and hope to soon be gainfully employed . . . again.


  19. Barbara Falconer Newhall - 1963

    My husband, a programmer, is retired and I am not.
    I’ve been a writer for decades and I’ve just signed a book contract. I also blog weekly on my website,
    In other words, I’m busy and he’s not. He wants to take exotic trips and do the NYT Sunday crossword puzzle — with me. And I’ve got to say . . . I’m tempted.


  20. Michael Polaski - 1973

    Enjoyable article, Susan. Virtually every aspect applied, to some extent, directly or indirectly, to my situation and why, at 61, I plan to continue working at least 6-7 more years. Finding a most enjoyable, lucrative position in software conversion with the IRS (from a 1960s language which no 21st century graduate knows or cares about to modern C/S languages) has made that an easy choice. But it came via an odd path.
    It’s news to no one what hell on earth it is getting up day-in, day-out to go off to a job you detest, but feel, at an advanced age, helpless to change due to your (self-perceived) “unemployability”…particularly in technologically-oriented fields. Such was my strait…until relieved of that hateful grindstone by a corporate take-over. But, unfortunately, also relieved of financial livelihood as well. Somewhat miraculously, I happened upon, in my desperate online job hunt, the ad for my current position. Realizing I had the unusual combination of the two languages, their heydays separated by nearly half a century, I applied…and the rest is (trivial) history.
    But reading some of the earlier readers’ comments—most all of them from fellow ‘Boomers—makes me sincerely wish many more of them shared experiences like mine, because, sadly, too many who work on, a la myself, do so out of sheer financial necessity…despising the fact. There are few
    things sadder than the life of a person who hates his/her job. Which, with the stagnant economy and our extended longevities, so many senior citizens are forced to hold on to.


  21. Portia Sanson

    I researched a field thoroughly before entering, did the class work, was gainfully employed and doing well, now laid off and will never make that kind of salary again. It’s a total crap shoot. Good luck to everyone. We will all sorely need it.


  22. Dirk Pegman - 1975

    Having been at the same school for over forty years, actually my only full time job since my undergrad days, I was advised by one of my older colleagues, who retired completely to avoid that. He struggled with the dramatic break (they “took my keys and cut off my e-mail”)and was hurt that after the kind words there was a silence that was difficult.
    As a result at 64.5 yrs. of age I negotiated a semi-retirement (40%) and have been able to work for two more years and will go one more, health permitting. It has been a great way to go. The kids are keeping me young. Some people my age are “pretty old in the head” and that is scary.


  23. Pat Gordon - 1977

    I am looking forward to retirement, but am currently pay down debt. I just completed an MBA and want to unretire into a new line of work.


  24. Ron Kruis - MSW 1976

    I am now 65. I retired from my primary career in 2002, with hopes of going directly into a second career in education reform. That did not materialize, but I have spent the intervening years in different part-time jobs. Our finances are more than ample, but I continue to work. For me, it is largely about being busy, staying occupied. Perhaps I’m not creative enough to think of other ways to be engaged, but I find genuine reward in having work, and a reason to get up in the morning.
    One of the gentlemen I work with just turned 90. Lord willing, I can see myself being similarly engaged at that age.



    I was born in 1949 and have had a job to go to every single day since I was a 10 yr old paper boy. I retired after 34 yrs as a teamster in 2006. I plan to retire from UofM 6/1/2016. That is 57 yrs of working. I will be full retirement age of 66. What could possibly go wrong with such a well thought out plan?? Only if our politicians change the rules.


  26. Gary Verlinde

    In the middle of my 40th year with a Michigan school district and ask myself every day whether I am still making a significant contribution. I am!
    The best part of my stressful job is mentoring talented 30-somethings who are bright, skilled, and eager. That is our future and if can in any way help them to contribute more and at an earlier age, I may stay on for a while. It also makes me young again!
    Besides, I don’t have a Plan B. You can only read so many books by the fireplace in February through March in Michigan. Grandchildren are wonderful but they are in school five days of the week.
    I agree that my job is part of my identity — especially when you are in the the field of education, where you prepare students for the future.


  27. Albert Acker

    I too enjoyed the article, even though I’m a “pre-boomer” born in 1941. I’m 72 and semi-retired. I have a small pension from a previous job and so don’t need the money desperately…thus can work for lower compensation that others might find difficult. I edit faculty manuscripts for faculty members of a local university, and work at home.


  28. Gogututu Puri

    There is no reason or age for retirement! I am 91 years old and actively working still!


  29. Kathryn Godley

    I’m now 60. I worked full time as a nurse since graduation, but last year, cut work to half time so that I could go back to school half time to become a nurse practitioner. This is a long held goal, delayed by child raising, and one I’m hoping won’t be too impacted by caring for my elderly parents. I feel like I have the best of both worlds, working half time at a job I love and having the stimulation and challenge of being in grad school again. This is economically possible, b/c my 63-year-old teacher-husband retired from a job with great retirement benefits, and then resumed about 4 days/week work as adjunct faculty for 2 colleges. He hated retirement initially…it wasn’t about “keeping busy”….he found plenty of things to do. It was about having purpose, which he has now found in his second (related) career. We know we are lucky to be healthy, financially secure enough, and work in careers in which we can tailor our work time to be satisfying but not exhausting.


  30. Paul Houk

    I am very fortunate to have been able to retire last year at age 55 rather than accept an unattractive relocation. I was successful and enjoyed my career, but am also enjoying retirement and not at all bored. Finally, able to do many of the things I had put off. I would not have been able to take this step if we hadn’t paid off our debt (including house). Lifestyle can be adjusted absent the debt factor.


  31. Audrey Hering - 1987

    I agree with Barbara Ladewski’s comments re: the importance of finding meaning, purpose and, I would add, challenges to our daily activities and work life further our collective mental health and wellbeing. Her comments re: concept of retirement are illuminating. I am continuing my private practice as a psychotherapist and have a part time position as counselor at a community college at the age of 74. I feel fortunate that I’m able to continue to do the work I love.


  32. Georgia Washington-Reum - 2011-EMU

    I graduated from EMU at the age of 58 with a degree in Exercise Phys. When I retire from my present job, my plans are to utilize my degree and keep active as long as possible.


  33. David Erdody

    The current U-M CFO expects nearly one-fifth of U-M employees to retire in next 5 years. That will change this university in *many* ways. Some good/some not/some wait-and-see.


  34. Tom Abdelnour

    I retired in 2012 and have a great time in retirement. I don’t work part time nor do I want to return to the work force. I talk to people my age all the time about retirement. Most of them are concerned about money, but I tell them all the same thing: “You don’t need a lot of money to retire, all you really need is to know how to have fun!” Please don’t forget we are Boomers. Almost all of us get up without much money and we haven’t forgotten how to live that way. So, just throw in a little fun and RETIRE!!!


  35. Rachel NotRealName - 1983

    I am 55, eligible to retire this year, and am looking for something new to explore. So, I may well retire, do something else for a while, then unretire – as they say. 25 years at the same place is long enough to try something new. With kids out of the house and no college tuition to pay, a reason not mentioned, one has new freedom to explore life.


  36. Gwen Handelman

    At age 66, I have found that maintaining healthy and meaningful social connections can be a full-time endeavor. It involves creating new memories with friends through shared activities (which may well include golf and shuffleboard, as well as attendance at memorable spectator sports and musical events, travel, etc.), active intellectual engagement with others (recalling the bull sessions of our college days), and attentiveness and responsiveness to the feelings of others.


  37. Karen Notrealname - 1977, 1982

    I’m 58 and work full time as a nurse. As my husband and friends look forward to retirement, I find that with the kids out of the house I have a renewed interest and energy for working! Love my job! Like the nurse who responded earlier, I too am looking forward to enrolling in an NP program next fall. I know that one effect of nurses who continue to work past “retirement age” has, it’s very difficult for new RN’s to find jobs.


  38. Beth Hamel - 1983

    Retired young, one year ago, and no regrets. We won’t be rich but we are comfortable, and I am trying very new things like bird photography:
    Loving it! It is ok to retire if you can make it work.


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