Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

Choosing work in later life

Written by Taylor R. Patskanick, master’s research fellow in aging at the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging at the Institute for Public Health

Have you ever thought about how much of your life you will spend working? Now more than ever before, older Americans are living longer and working longer.

The average age of retirement since the establishment of Social Security in the 1930s has increased. In fact, about 22% of our labor force is aged 55+ right now; and it will only continue to grow to about 25% by 2024, seven years from now. This means employers will not only need to meet the unique challenges of an aging workforce, but will have a wealth of resources and skills in older workers who are choosing to work past “retirement age.”

For some, working longer is a choice, while for others it is a necessity. Many Americans have to work for as long as possible to maintain access to employer-sponsored healthcare benefits and maintain an income. Due to the 2008 financial crisis, soaring healthcare costs, and stagnant wages, Baby Boomers and subsequent generations will continue to find it harder than any other generation to save for retirement.

Working longer also means we routinely engage with co-workers who can provide us with important social and emotional resources or support.

Working longer is not only valuable for our wallets, but can also be good for our health. There is a close link between purpose in life and occupational activities― both promote health benefits, a sense of identity, and skill development. Working longer also means we routinely engage with co-workers who can provide us with important social and emotional resources or support. Yet, the nature and type of work we do and our satisfaction with our job all determine if employment continues to be good for our physical, cognitive, and psychological health.

When we continue to work into older age, there are many factors that can affect our ability to work. Health is most often cited as the reason U.S. adult workers have to retire unexpectedly. Over time, knowledge and skills can become outdated; depending on the industry, frequency and opportunities for training and re-training vary.

Americans also have a lot on their plate – according to an AARP survey, over 45% of older workers are also caregivers for children, a spouse, or their parents. Caregiving can significantly impact work life and productivity for older workers since they often have to rearrange work schedules or work less hours, resulting in a decrease in wages, health insurance, retirement savings, or other job benefits.

Regardless of whether we want to keep working, work at another job, or not work at all, we have to start thinking long before retirement about the type of work we desire or need. The theme for Older Americans’ Month is Aging Out Loud. For me, this means creating opportunities and resources for all Americans to be able to choose how to spend the second half of life. And how we blend working longer into that should be a part of that choice.

There are a variety of options to help with the transition to working in older age, some require planning and additional resources, and some may be opportunities already available through your employer. If you want a change, but cannot easily change positions or careers, try to work in time volunteering in your community, taking a class in a new skill, or spending time in the activities you daydream about all day in the office; you never know when one of these efforts might lead to an income-generating opportunity.

If you like the work that you do, continue to stay engaged and find opportunities to give back, such as mentoring younger workers. Delaying retirement and Social Security benefits just a few years, can result in financial benefit for you in the long run. If you’re looking to step back slowly, consider flexible work options or phased retirement. Or if you’re looking for a complete change, reentering the job market, returning to school, pursuing an encore career, or starting your own business might be for you.

Looking for local resources? Check out NextMove, an initiative from the Brown School that offers free, self-paced online classes to help older workers focus on finding their niche in their second half of life. St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE) and St. Louis Community College also offer various networking, job training, career counseling, continuing education, and other supportive services for the active older worker.

On a national scale, AARP and United Way’s 211 connects workers aged 50+ with resources to help plan for retirement, combat age discrimination, and aid in the job search. Other programs include SAGEWorks, a national employment support program for LGBT adults,, a movement engaging millions of people to pursue encore careers, and Senior Corps, a federally-funded program pairing older adult volunteers with community-based organizations.

For further reading check out…

  • The Encore Career Handbook by Marc Freedman
  • BOOMERangs by Cash Nickerson
  • Disrupt Aging by Jo Ann Jenkins
  • Don’t Retire, REWIRE! 5 Steps to Fulfilling Work that Fuels your Passion, Suits your Personality, or Fills your Pocket by Jeri Sedlar & Rick Miners