Phasing Into Retirement

Transition into retirement with a flexible work schedule

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If you're nearing retirement age and want to work less but aren't quite ready for full-time leisure, "phased retirement" might be for you. Phased retirement offers flexible work arrangements, earned income (sometimes along with a pension), and a chance for your retirement accounts to grow longer without being tapped. "It's a pretty abrupt change to go from working being the major activity to nothing," says Steven Allen, a professor at North Carolina State University's College of Management. "Psychologically, professional people have a lot of their identity wrapped up in their career."

Some companies have established programs that let employees make a gradual transition into retirement. The biotechnology company Monsanto has a Resource Re-entry Center that matches former employees with temporary assignments after at least a six-month separation from the company. "RRC participants can use the skills and competencies they gained in their careers for a similar role or leverage those skills to explore an entirely different role," says Deborah Lebryk, Monsanto's director of external relations.

RRC participants range from scientists and financial professionals to tour guides and receptionists. Typical of the RRC program is Gary Barton, a science communications retiree who now conducts tours of plant genetics research labs. He is currently planning his next vacation; his flexible hours allow him to pick up more hours one week and take another week off. Maryann Benoist, another RRC participant, calls the program a "godsend." "When you go full steam ahead and then just stop-it didn't work for me," she says. She now shares a job with another employee so that she can pick what days she will work.

The Aerospace Corp. runs a Retiree Casual Program in which former employees receive compensation for time worked plus normal retirement benefits, but additional retirement benefits do not accrue. "Employees like remaining connected to the company, being able to work part time, being able to ease into retirement, and being recognized for their expertise," says Charlotte Lazar-Morrison, the company's principal director of human resources.

Formal phased-retirement programs aren't the norm, though. Phased retirement is most often an ad hoc arrangement negotiated between an individual and a company, says Yung-Ping Chen, a gerontologist at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

Here are questions to ask when negotiating phased retirement with your employer:

How is this going to affect my pension? Look into how your pension amount will be calculated. Make sure that only your full-time salary, and not your lower phased salary, is used to calculate your pension. Some companies limit employees to 999 hours per year, or half time, to avoid having to increase workers' retirement benefits.

If I cut my hours, what's going to happen to my salary? Salaries are reviewed and often decreased when you are rehired, especially if you held a management position. Make sure to agree upon pay before you continue working.

What's going to happen to my health benefits? The amount of health coverage provided by employers for both full- and part-time workers varies widely. Check to see that you will still be covered, especially if you phase into retirement before Medicare coverage kicks in at age 65.

Can I phase in right away? In North Carolina, a state employee who retires must wait six months before working for the state again. Many companies, like Monsanto, also require a separation from the company. Find out if your company requires a separation and for how long.

What will be expected of me? Find out what your new work responsibilities will be and how many hours you will be expected to put in. Chen recommends getting answers to these questions: How long does the arrangement last? Can either party terminate the agreement at any time? If I don't like phased retirement, can I go back to working full time?

Know that things won't be exactly the same. Phased retirement pays you bonuses in terms of free time. However, coworkers and managers may react negatively to your "double dipping," or receiving both a pension benefit and a paycheck. Also, you may lose some perks of a full-time employee. Be ready to give up your parking space and office, Allen says.

Enjoy the perks. Phasing into retirement gives you more time to take classes, get involved in civic activities, take adequate care of your health, and travel. Phased retirees in the University of North Carolina system who had their workload reduced by 50 percent reported that they had more time to spend with friends and family, engage in research or other creative scholarly activities, and volunteer in the community.

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