For roughly eight decades, retirement for many Americans meant living out one’s golden years with loved ones and supporting themselves through Social Security, which they’d paid into for so long. Yet recent studies show there’s a growing contingent of middle-aged and older Americans who expect their retirement will be spent at least partially working.
The dream of retiring from work for good, though, seems to be fading away. For some workers, it is an economic necessity to keep working at least part time well into retirement, while for others, it is a choice to continue pursuing jobs that provide fulfillment and social opportunities. Could the future of retirement look a lot different than it did for previous generations? And what are the factors driving Americans to work long after their careers have ended? Read on to find out.
Recent surveys and research suggest the nature of retirement is changing. This period of life will no longer be one solely of leisure for the majority of Americans; most people expect to continue working in at least some capacity.
According to a 2022 survey conducted by financial advisory firm Edward Jones and consulting firm Age Wave, 59 percent of older Americans expect to continue working in retirement. Of those respondents, 22 percent were hoping to work part time, 19 percent sought to cycle between work and leisure, and 18 percent expected to continue full-time work.
The survey also found that many Americans expect to survive until at least 100 years of age. With that expectation, respondents said, comes the fear of becoming a financial burden on their families. That’s led to an increase in the number of older adults who continue working even after they’ve left their careers behind. In fact, the number of U.S. workers age 75 or older is expected to increase by 96.5 percent by 2030, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That trend may have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic turmoil. During the pandemic, millions of Americans chose to retire early — only to return to work as the pandemic subsided. As inflation and supply chain challenges have increased the cost of living dramatically since COVID-19 first emerged, many have found their savings and Social Security income alone are not enough to rely on and, therefore, have sought some form of work to supplement their income.
In 2023, retired workers are eligible to earn up to $56,520 without having their Social Security benefits docked, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration.
While the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic challenges, such as inflation, have increased the number of Americans working past their expected retirement, it’s not a new trend. In TD Ameritrade’s 2019 Unretirement Survey, researchers found that most middle-aged and older Americans “plan to work 20 hours per week or more” after they’ve officially retired. Christine Russell, senior manager of retirement and annuities at TD Ameritrade, said that sentiment reflects a major shift in how workers view their futures.
“Gone are the days of retirement being seen as an essential, defined life stage, where an employee could expect to work for a company long-term and be taken care of after retiring,” Russell said. “As the workplace landscape continues to evolve, Americans are going to need to make an assessment about what their retirement trajectory may actually look like and plan accordingly.”
The survey polled 2,000 U.S. adults about their retirement prospects. Respondents were between the ages of 40 and 70 and had at least $25,000 in investable assets. Researchers divided the respondents by their age and by decade, resulting in four groups of 500 individuals.
While not strictly an American concept, retirement in the United States began with the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, which set the official retirement age at 65. At that time, the average life expectancy at birth was 60 for men and 64 for women. Thanks to advances in modern medicine, however, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is now 76.4 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With all of the planning that goes into retirement, middle-aged survey respondents said they anticipate having to work after their careers end because of a longer life expectancy. [Read related article: 5 Ways Small Business Owners Can Start Preparing for Retirement]
Most people would agree that getting a paycheck is a strong motivator to work. Yet, according to the survey, retirees who already spent their entire lives working to support themselves and their families expect to have other motivations for working through retirement.
According to the TD Ameritrade survey, 37 percent of respondents in their 40s and 50s said they planned to continue working after retirement “even if there is no financial need.” In fact, those in the youngest age group said they looked forward to volunteering, with 46 percent saying they already have or would consider volunteering at a nonprofit or community center.
Nearly 30 percent of respondents said they have already taken small breaks in their retirement or would consider intermittent retirement. Furthermore, 53 percent of respondents said they would “rather work longer in their lifetime and have small one-year mini-retirement breaks than work without a break until retirement.”
The main reason for this, the researchers said, was that 72 percent of respondents said they wanted to keep their mental acuity, while 67 percent wanted to curtail boredom and 58 percent desired social interaction. Still, 59 percent said their main motivation for working after retirement was to keep themselves financially solvent, which you can also prepare for by implementing proper retirement saving strategies at an earlier age. [Related: Self-Employed 401(k) FAQs]
In a bind for liquid capital? Borrowing against your 401(k) could be a good strategy depending on the market conditions. However, you should avoid doing so unless it’s necessary; your future financial well-being could depend on it.
Whereas retirement was once a time to leave work behind for good, many Americans now view it as a new phase of life in which their primary career or full-time job is over but working is not. As a result of financial constraints or a desire to stay active, many Americans are now reconsidering retirement and plan to work part time, consult or focus on their own business, which can give them the flexibility to enjoy their golden years while still bringing in a modest income.
Tejas Vemparala and Dock Treece contributed to this article.