Why Americans Are Working Longer Than Ever

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Financial Writer
6 min read
This story originally appeared on CNBC

The golden years aren't what they used to be. Whether that's good or bad depends on whom you ask. 

These days, more Americans are working longer into retirement. Since the recession, the average retirement age has risen to 62 from 57, and by 2020 it is estimated that 25 percent of American workers will be 55 or older, according to the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. 

While many are working longer because they simply can't afford to retire or give up their benefits, others are remaining in the workforce to maintain the sense of purpose that working provides. Often it's a combination of both. 

"You definitely have people working longer and pushing up the age of retirement," said Sara Rix, a senior strategic policy adviser with AARP Public Policy Institute. The most dramatic increases in workforce participation, she said, are people between 65 and 69, though there has been an increase in workers 70 and over. 

The impetus behind the shift is mixed. "When we have asked people why they're still working or plan to keep working, the results are similar—people are about equally likely to say they need to work for health care or money as to say they want to work for social and psychological reasons," Rix said. 

The need to work often stems from the lack of adequate financial preparation prior to retirement. According to the Northwestern Mutual 2014 Planning and Progress Study, fewer than half of adults have spoken to someone about retirement, and only 52 percent said they feel very financially prepared to live until 75. 

But preparedness isn't always the issue, as some people are finding themselves in need of additional income to cover rising expenses or unexpected health-care costs. The former has become particularly problematic as baby boomers increasingly take on the financial responsibility of caring for elderly parents as well as children. 

The need to maintain health benefits is also a major consideration. According to AARP's study, 61 percent of people that continued to work out of necessity said health care was a primary reason, and 59 percent pointed to the need to pay for health costs. 

While money is clearly a primary motivator, the psychological factors associated with working past retirement age have many people choosing to stay in the workforce. 

Rebekah Barsch, vice president of planning and sales at Northwestern Mutual, said data has shown that "independent of need, future retirees find it rewarding to stay professionally active during their golden years."

The Northwestern Mutual study claims that 57 percent of respondents currently working plan to work as long as they can by choice. While the study didn't address the reasons why respondents choose to continue working, Barsch said that "significantly more current retirees viewed retirement as an opportunity to focus on health and fitness and volunteer work, perhaps suggesting a mental shift away from a more leisurely, traditional understanding of retirement." 

Dorian Mintzer, a retirement coach and co-author of "The Couple's Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Transitioning to the Second Half of Life," agrees that the perception of retirement age has changed, causing more people to remain active in the workforce longer. 

"The traditional retirement age of 62 or 65 is not considered old," she said. "It's more like extended middle age." 

Mintzer added, "People still feel vital and engaged. Some may not even have to earn money, but they want to work and be relevant." 

Educated means employed

She explained that people who retire without considering how to replace the aspects that work provided—such as the social interaction, time away from their partner and the sense of purpose—could easily spiral into a depression or become anxious.

While many people look to delay retirement by remaining in the same job, that's not always possible. According to AARP's Rix, education tends to be a major determinant. 

"In general, the better educated are in the types of jobs that make continued employment possible," she said, adding that "they tend to have jobs that pay more. 

"And there are things associated with higher incomes, such as better health care, more propensity to excise—all sorts of things that make it easier for people to remain longer in the workforce." 

"The hard reality in the 21st century is that if people still want to work but aren't in a job they can continue at, the likelihood is they might not find a lateral move."-Dorian Mintzer, retirement coach and author

For those who are forced to seek out new jobs, many are looking for work in a different capacity, such as part-time work and jobs that are less demanding, though these can be hard to come by. 

Finding a new job is often challenging for older workers, especially if they are trying to replicate the same income stream, according to Mintzer. "The hard reality in the 21st century is that if people still want to work but aren't in a job they can continue at, the likelihood is they might not find a lateral move," she said.

Mintzer recommends hiring a career coach or visiting a CareerOneStopBusiness Center, which is a career counseling center sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration. She also suggests contacting Life Planning Network—a community of professionals and organizations that help people navigate the second half of life—or joining a support group. 

Additionally, she said that so-called "encore careers"—paid jobs designed for retirees in fields that promote social impact—is also a good resource for people who want the personal and social fulfillment of working but don't necessarily need to maintain the same income. 

Jobs have changed, and it can take older workers a long time to find a new job, and it can be hard to be in that limbo period, so it's very helpful to connect with other people to get support and get help, she said.

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