When Jon turned 57 a few years ago, he was a manager in a health-care supply company. His firm had just been acquired and he was not happy with the direction the new parent company was taking. He and his wife Gail had substantial savings and had paid off the mortgage on a home in central New Jersey where they'd lived for 20 years. Like millions of men ages 55 to 64, Jon retired â€” early.
Six months later, one of his former colleagues called and asked if he was available to work part-time on a small project. That project led to another, and another. Now, Jon is not only back at work full-time, but has won a company award for outstanding performance. When asked about this, he says: â€œI love what I'm doing and frankly, would rather work than play golf or go fishing.â€?
Larry Cohen at SRI consulting knows this trend well. He calls it â€œrevolving retirement,â€? a life stage that he says represents about 13 percent of the age 55-plus householders. He suggests that as this segment grows, people like Jon will probably retire again in a few years only to subsequently re-enter the workforce either full- or part-time. For some people it seems that work is just too much fun.
Cohen and others at his firm in Princeton, N.J., research the financial services implications of this phenomenon, but there are many other consequences of the increasing complexity in the work-to-retirement process. American Demographics has previously observed how Baby Boomers will probably delay retirement just as they have deferred previous life transitions. But it is not likely to be that simple.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a slow but steady decline in labor force participation rates among men younger than 65 for the past 20 years. Much of that decline can be credited to industrial restructuring and the big loss of manufacturing jobs. But this will probably change. Now, about half of all employed men work in professional, managerial or other white-collar jobs, while less than 1 in 6 works in manufacturing. So, labor force participation for the age group is likely to start increasing again.
For men who choose to go to college, jobs are more readily available as well. Labor force participation for male college graduates age 25 or older is 84 percent, compared with only 69 percent for those without college experience. And the older a worker gets, the more important education becomes. Jon would probably not have been physically able to come out of retirement if he were a factory worker, nor would he be needed.
Revolving or delayed retirement is likely to increase because the number of professional or managerial employees (now about one-third of all workers) is growing faster than other occupations. But there are also a couple of deep psychological reasons, besides the fact that working in an office is often enjoyable.
Millions of Americans work more for the â€œpsychic incomeâ€? than the monetary income. Affluent executives and professionals often think of themselves as important people doing important work, and many of them are. And they have all perks: an office, a cell phone and a lunch expense account â€” all of which disappear should they retire. For those individuals, retirement is something to be put off as long as possible.
The second reason revolving or delayed retirement is becoming so popular is the almost universal desire to make a virtue out of a necessity. It is well documented that millions of older workers, unlike Jon and Gail, have not saved enough for their retirement. But not many people really want to admit that they were foolish about their financial matters. It's much easier to talk about how much they enjoy working.
But unlike most demographic or psychographic trends, there's a problem with this one. It's called the human body. People may want very badly to work into old age, but they may not be able to. As our bodies age, things start to go wrong, particularly if they have not been well taken care of. According to surveys by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), one-third of men 55 to 74 are seriously overweight (body mass index of 30 or higher) and another 44 percent are moderately overweight (body mass index of 25 to 29).
In addition to having â€œweight issues,â€? NCHS data shows that more than 1 in 4 of those ages 55 to 64 suffer from arthritis and/or high blood pressure. That explains why out-of-pocket spending on prescription drugs is 50 percent greater and doctor bills are 39 percent higher for people 55 to 64 than for those 45 to 54, according to the BLS.
Working, even in a pleasant office, requires energy, which tends to diminish as workers age and begin to suffer health problems. Still, older people who love their jobs have a greater desire to stay healthy and productive.
They may be quite willing to pay for a convenient health-care service that keeps them well rather than treats them when they are not well. Many Baby Boomers have a personal trainer. Perhaps we may see a return â€” for those who can afford it â€” to the concept of a personal physician, who may even make office calls.
Maybe one of the pharmaceutical companies looking for the next blockbuster drug will develop a medication that increases energy and sharpens the memory for a full day's work. It would be an easy thing to sell, because more than a few aging Boomers might just be on the edge of worry about those smarter, faster and, yes, much younger people out there who want their job.
But what may be needed more than any health-care product is a job counseling service for aging Boomers who may need an attitude adjustment before returning to work in an office environment heavily populated with members of Generations X and Y.
Such a service might offer a gentle reminder that working alongside, and even for, people who might be as much as 30 years younger often requires an updating of one's skills in such matters as patience, tact, humility and respect.
There are now only about 16 million men and women ages 55 to 64 that are in the workforce. Within a decade that group is projected to swell to over 23 million workers. Vast resources may be devoted to keeping those older workers sharp and productive well into their 60s and even later.
Peter Francese is the founder of American Demographics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.