For most of the last 50 years, Americans have avidly pursued the goal of early retirement. In 1950, nearly three-quarters of all 65-year-old men were working. By 1985, less than one-third were.
But now there is evidence that older Americans - both men and women - are working much more than the earlier retirement trend would have predicted, social scientists say.
“The era of earlier and earlier retirement seems to have come to an abrupt halt,” said Joseph Quinn, a professor at Boston College and an authority on demographic trends among older Americans.
The earlier trend suggested that less than 15 percent of men aged 65 to 69 would still be working by 1995. Instead, a recent analysis by Quinn shows that twice as many men - nearly 30 percent - were working. The trend line also suggested that fewer than 15 percent of women between 65 and 69 would be working. In fact, nearly 20 percent continued to work.
The decisions of more older Americans to stay on the job reflect social, economic and policy changes that promise to reshape the nation’s traditional vision of retirement, Quinn and others believe. In the future, they say, people are likely to ease into retirement or have multiple careers that stretch into the last third of their lives, rather than buying condos in Florida.
“There’s a likelihood that we will see more people working longer,” said Robert Friedland, director of the National Academy of Aging. “At the same time, how people approach work also will be changing. People will be willing to try things they didn’t try before.”
A booming economy, more-liberal Social Security work rules, longer life expectancy, and other factors appear to be encouraging growing numbers to opt for so-called bridge jobs as an alternative to the traditional leap from full-time employment to total retirement.
Consider, for instance, Jim Miller, a former AT&T; systems programmer in Bergen County, N.J., who took advantage of careful planning and generous pension provisions to retire at 62. Now, at 64, he’s back at work, consulting part time from his home. And he doesn’t intend to quit soon.
“I’m in good health and who knows what tomorrow will bring,” said Miller.
In coming years, as the baby boom generation moves into its 50s and 60s, experts expect such decisions to multiply, with a wave of Americans overcoming social and institutional barriers and opting to extend their work lives.
“The baby boomers are going to demand it,” said Sara Rix, an analyst with the American Association of Retired People’s Public Policy Institute here.
Three-quarters of workers age 51 to 61 said they would like to continue working beyond the traditional retirement age, according to a recent Health and Retirement Survey sponsored by the National Institute of Aging.
But two-thirds of the thousands questioned in that national study also said they feared their employers wouldn’t make it possible for them to continue working as long as they wanted.
Experts believe that substantial future growth in senior employment depends on a number of variables, some of which are as uncertain as the economy.
A strong economy created 2.5 million American jobs in just the last year. That demand for workers has made employers more accommodating to the needs of older workers and less likely to encourage them to retire.
“Some of the bigger corporations are finding new ways to retain workers,” Friedland said.
McDonald’s Corp., for instance, has special recruitment and training programs for older workers.
“In many cases our restaurants didn’t need that,” said McDonald’s spokesperson Malesia Webb-Dunn. “Seniors came in because it was an easy transition, they could almost set their own schedule.”
Still, while mandatory retirement was outlawed in 1986, there are real differences in how older workers are looked at by employers. Bosses often see seniors as less flexible, less willing to adapt to new technologies, and less creative in their approaches to work.
“There is no question that employers still have biases about workers over 50,” said the AARP’s Rix. “Employers have reservations about older workers’ technological confidence, flexibility and adaptability.”
In an economic downturn, many senior workers could well lose their employment appeal. “I don’t have any information that corporate America is really changing,” Friedland said.
Older workers themselves frequently contribute to the problem by not volunteering for training or failing to pursue challenging new roles at work.
“The ability to learn continues well into old age, but those skills get rusty if you don’t constantly hone them,” Rix said.
And many older Americans will continue to opt for traditional or even early retirement.
But for all of that, demographers believe the importance of gradual retirement is likely to increase as the population continues to age and as life expectancies continue to increase.
In an analysis of data from a national survey taken in 1994, Quinn has determined that more than 40 percent of the men and women who quit full-time work moved to bridge jobs rather than directly out of the labor force.
Many of these jobs were part-time (less than 1,600 hours a year), generally paid less than their previous jobs, and were less likely to include pension and health benefits. But the new jobs almost certainly offered more flexibility and other compensations.