September 01, 2013

Why We Work

With Labor Day rapidly approaching, I began wondering about older people in the workforce. Just how many people over 65 work? What about over 75? How is this changing? And what does work mean for older individuals?

Of course 65 is an arbitrary way to define old age. Most people who turn 65 are not old in any meaningful sense—they are certainly nowhere near the end of life: they can expect to live another 19.1 years. For women, life-expectancy at age 65 is still greater, or 20.3 years. Even age 75 is no longer very old, with a life-expectancy of another 12.1 years.  Moreover, as I pointed out in my last blog posting, roughly half those years are “disability-free.” But Social Security kicks in at 65 and so does Medicare, so this continues to mark the conventional threshold between working and retirement.

It turns out that a substantial and rising proportion of the population continue to work after their 65th birthdays. US Census Bureau projections for 2014 are that just under one in five people over age 65 will be working, a 36% increase in just 5 years.  For the 65-74 year old group, it will be slightly over one in four, and for those over 75, it will be a little under 10%. Roughly half of those people who continue to work will do so pretty much full time; about one-third will work 15-34 hours a week, with the remainder working 14 hours or less. 

The US is not the only developed nation to see a marked increase in older workers. England has experienced a surge of older workers, with numbers topping a million this spring: in 2013, 57% of people who reached the official retirement age said they planned to continue working, compared to 40% a year earlier. 

Some of the change is a direct consequence of the recession. The value of retirement plans that were tied up in the stock market took a huge hit, and with it came the realization by many people that they didn’t have enough money saved up to retire at 65. They also stood to lose employee-sponsored health insurance—along with their main source of identity. 

What I found fascinating is that there’s a lot of advice available for prospective retirees about where to live, how to save for retirement, and how to make your money last after you do retire but not much, as a recent article in Time pointed out, about how to make the most of the post-65 period, with or without a job. The pundits encourage everyone to be eat well, remain active and to nurture close personal relationships before they turn 65 in the hope of remaining healthy but are silent about what to actually do with their lives if they succeed..

My personal advice—and I wrote about this in my book, The Denial of Aging: Perpetual Youth, Eternal Life and Other Dangerous Fantasies, in the chapter “Making the Most of the Retirement Years,” is to concentrate on finding meaning in life. If work gives you a sense of meaning and if you’re able to keep at it, then do it. If work doesn’t give you a sense of meaning or if you can no longer continue what you’ve been doing, then it’s best to find something else that gives you that all-important sense of being part of the human community and making a contribution to the world. And it’s the job of the rest of us to make sure there are ample opportunities to do just that.

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