En español | Doris McGhee Collins gave retirement a try. At 63, she stepped down from her post as a human resources executive at a financial-services company in Arlington, Virginia. Then came the stock market meltdown of 2008. Fretting over her shrinking nest egg and restless at home, she launched an HR consulting business. And last year, at age 70, she found herself back at work full time as the human resources director at a 1,600-student consortium of Washington, D.C., charter schools.
The extra income is welcome, but the real appeal lies elsewhere: the eight-minute commute, the satisfaction of doing a job she knows well. And, well, working is fun. "Just going into the schools and seeing the kids gives me such a shot of adrenaline," Collins says. How long will she keep at it? "I feel great now, and will continue as long as my health and energy remain at these levels. I work a nine- or 10-hour day, but the work is so enjoyable."
Meet the hottest demographic in the labor market: men and women working not only past traditional retirement age but into their 70s, 80s and sometimes beyond. Over the coming decade, they'll be the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among 65- to 74-year-olds, labor force participation is predicted to hit 32 percent by 2022, up from 20 percent in 2002. At age 75 and up, the rate will jump from 5 percent in 2002 to 11 percent in 2022. Meanwhile, participation rates among younger age groups will be flat or will even fall.
"The number of workers over age 75 who work is still a small phenomenon as a percentage of the population, but it's definitely trending upward," says Sara Rix, senior strategic policy adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute and an expert on older workers. "It might accelerate if people were able to make midlife career changes more easily. Who wants to do the same thing for 20 more years that they've been doing for a long time? Many people now working into their late 70s and 80s have careers with a lot of variety that helps keep work interesting and enjoyable."
Rising levels of educational attainment are fueling the trend, says Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution. In 1985, only 15 percent of men between 60 and 74 had a college degree; in 2011, 32 percent did. The figures for women lag but are following the same general trajectory, Burtless says. To a striking degree, working after retirement age tends to be the province of a high-status, well-educated subset of the population: 61 percent of those ages 62 to 74 who were working in 2009 held doctorates or professional degrees, compared with just 28 percent of those whose educations stopped after high school.
Certain professions are notably friendly to their oldest practitioners, for several reasons. White-collar professionals in fields such as the arts, medicine, law, education or business are not only spared the physical toll of blue-collar labor, they also often receive formal or informal job protections, such as the tenure system in academe. Plus, "many of these jobs have greater social prestige," says Burtless, "so they offer people who remain in them status that they might partly lose when they leave their jobs."
Pure financial need is clearly a factor, too: Workers can delay filing for Social Security, save more for retirement and spend fewer years depleting those savings to fund living expenses. Seventy percent of experienced workers say they plan to work in retirement, whether full or part time, according to a 2014 AARP study; 35 percent of those ages 65 to 74 cite the extra income as the biggest reason why. "Working a few more years and delaying Social Security until you're 70 can make the difference in retirement between cat food and sirloin," says financial planner Harold Evensky, who walks the walk on this issue. At 72, he maintains an active role managing his firm.
But, like Collins, many on the late shift do it not for money but for love of working. That AARP study revealed that nearly 1 in 5 of the 65-to-74 age group say job enjoyment is the single most important reason they still work. For women in their late 60s and beyond, there's another dimension to the trend, argues Elizabeth Fideler, a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College and author of Women Still at Work: Professionals Over Sixty and On the Job, as well as a companion volume on men. They came of age before the women's movement and didn't have as many professional options.
"It took a lot of drive and determination to get started, and for many it wasn't really their dream career," she says. "Some of them got started as teachers, social workers, secretaries or nurses but always wanted to do something else. Many of these women eventually realized their dreams — and now they are at the top of their games in their 60s, 70s or beyond. It's quite an accomplishment, and a lot of them are reluctant to give that up."
See also: Now, for my next act ... a career change
That's one big reason why Amy Kaiser, director of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, has no plans to put down her baton anytime soon. When she entered the job market in the early 1970s, the field of choral conducting was strictly a man's world: She ended up taking a job at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, then leaving academe in her mid-30s to pursue a freelance conducting career in New York City. At auditions, she'd often be the only woman. Once, the head of a small opera company told her, "I'm not sure we're ready to have a woman conductor." In 1995 she was hired by the St. Louis Symphony, where she's been ever since. She celebrates her 70th birthday in March, and her career is flourishing. "The thought of retiring at 70 is unthinkable," she says. "And, I'm having a ball."
Plenty of men are just as reluctant to leave careers behind at this stage. Bruce Chabner, M.D., is a top cancer researcher — and after 47 years in the field, he finds that the intellectual challenge continues to drive him. "It's a very exciting time of astonishing change," he says. "The field of cancer research is exploding with new ideas."
At 74, Chabner says he's too wrapped up in this to think about retirement. As director of clinical research at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston, he often logs 12-hour workdays and keeps up a grueling travel schedule. He also teaches in the Department of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, serves as cofounder and editor of a professional journal, and writes frequently for journals and books. "It would be difficult to give it up and say, 'It's all over. I'll go back home and sleep late, play golf and forget about it,' " he admits.
That sense of purpose is a cornerstone of psychological well-being, especially for older adults, says Dorian Mintzer, 69, a Boston-based retirement transition coach and psychologist. "People need to think about this before retirement: How does work give you that sense of connection and engagement, and how will you get it after you retire? It could be from volunteering, spending time with your grandchildren or writing your memoirs — anything that engages you and gives you that sense of connection."
How about those who keep working? "They don't view themselves as old, and they realize that they still have skills to contribute," she says. "Their work identity is a strong part of their sense of self and positive self-esteem."
Good vibrations are also what keep Blanca Almonte, 77, devoted to her job. "If you have lived all your life thinking you were doing something that benefited someone other than yourself, it's very hard to give it up," says the longtime social worker. "People think it is unselfish, but it isn't — you need to be needed."
Almonte immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with her family when she was 12. She went on to earn a master's degree in social work at the University of Chicago, and played a key role in the development and growth of Family Focus, a groundbreaking, Chicago-based social service organization focused on supporting parents of young children.
Then, at 65, she retired and moved to San Francisco to live with her younger sister. "They gave me my nice little trophy, and I thought I was heading off to a life of leisure," she says. "We bought a house, got a couple of dogs and did a lot of gardening. But it just wasn't enough. It took me a while to figure it out, but I was missing a sense of making a difference." Just a year later, she went back to work as a social worker for Family Builders, a California nonprofit that helps foster children find permanent homes. A decade later, she's still on the job.
Like many workers her age, Almonte has found that postretirement employment has its own benefits. The extra money comes in handy for traveling and home-improvement projects. And now that she's far from the pressures of the promotion track, she can savor perhaps the best perk of working after 70: choosing not to work. These days she enjoys a flexible schedule; she "scaled down" her week several years ago. "The best part," she says, "is that I have Fridays off now."