Working After Retirement
Retirement doesn't always mean the end of working. Many of today's retirees are choosing to take on new jobs after they retire.
ILLUSTRATION BY Craig Holland
When you look up the word “retire” in the thesaurus, here are some of the synonyms offered: “relinquish,” “surrender,” “withdraw,” “decamp,” “give up work.” Yet three-quarters of today’s retirees would beg to differ with good ol’ Merriam-Webster. According to a recent study done by Merrill Lynch in partnership with Age Wave, nearly three out of four people (72 percent) over the age of 50 claim they want to keep working after they retire — and often not in the field from which they just retired.
Several factors have brought about this revamping of retirement, including a longer life expectancy (which means that retirees could be living more than two decades after their last regular paycheck); the disintegration of the company pension plan for most workers, leaving individuals to fend for themselves when it comes to making sure they have enough to live on after they retire; a wobbly economy, with no guarantees that hard-earned money will still be there some years down the road; and lastly, a new vision of what retirement actually means.
In fact, the notion of retirement has come nearly full circle — from the nonexistence of retirement prior to the 20th century to just recently when the last generation took a permanent vacation from work once they hit a set “retirement age.” Nowadays, seniors want to live a life of semi-leisure with purpose and a paycheck (albeit most likely a smaller one than they collected before retirement).
One such senior is Barbara Leahy, who has lived in Concord most of her adult life. As a mother of five, her first job was a school nurse in the Capital City. With her soft-spoken demeanor and kind face, you can just picture the silver-haired 78-year-old grandmother tending to the city’s students years ago. “The good thing, of course, was when there was no school. I didn’t work and I had my summers off, and besides being in a wonderful school system, it was a wonderful place to work,” says Leahy. When her youngest son Jonathan went off to college, however, “it would have been the first time I would have been alone and I thought, ‘I don’t think I’m going to like this.’”
She had been considering changing her nursing focus to seniors for a while, because she says she always loved working with older people, and this life change was the perfect opportunity to do so. “I decided that I would go to graduate school when John went off to college,” she says, “and I started a program down at UMass in Lowell in their Geriatric Nurse Practitioner program.” Just short of 50 years old, much to her astonishment, she got accepted to the program and, even more astonishing to her, she was accepted for a position at the Elliot Hospital for a brand new geriatric psych program they had just started. “I marvel because I hadn’t worked with people in a hospital forever and I was only going to stay there while I was in graduate school,” she says. “But as it turned out, I stayed there working the 3-11 shift for 10 years.” After a decade of working at the Elliot, the hospital offered people who had been there a while a package that was hard to pass up “and I did not pass it up,” says Leahy.
You’d think she might have retired then, at just past 60 years old. Turns out that was only Act II. A good friend who had worked as a school nurse with Leahy called to say that there was going to be a job at the Statehouse for nurses. “She had talked with someone about the possibility of job sharing, and even in its ad it listed having a background possibly in school nursing,” says Leahy. She and her friend Margaret got the job, working together for five or six years until Margaret’s husband became ill. Leahy’s supervisors asked if she knew of someone else she might want to work with, so she called a woman she had worked with at Elliot Hospital who was about to retire. “I said, ‘Don’t say no right now, just come and take a look,’ so my friend Jeannie came and we stayed together another four years.”
A move back to her hometown in Wisconsin to care for her sister necessitated her resignation of that job, but she moved back to Concord after her sister’s death a few years later, taking a series of part-time jobs, including working in a deli and a florist shop. Then that spring, a job posting appeared in the newspaper for guides at Canterbury Shaker Village.
“I thought this would be an interesting job and also it had seasonal parameters — from May to October — and I thought then I wouldn’t have to go chugging around in wintertime,” she says. “They wanted someone who had been a teacher, perhaps involved with the theatre, or a historian. Now, I am none of those people, but I applied for the job and, wonder of wonders, got it. This is my fifth year at Shaker Village.”
Leahy says part of the reason she worked when she came back from Wisconsin was for the money, but she also admits that it’s nice to have a choice of where she spends her time. Leahy embodies the notion that boomers are seeking a greater purpose and fulfillment in their so-called retirement years. If they’re not continuing to do what they love, they want to pursue an interest that they might not have been able to before while working full time. They also want to remain social by staying out in the workforce. And while continuing to bring home money might be one motivator today, 80 percent of working retirees say they’re working because they want to vs. the 20 percent who say they have to, according to that same Merrill Lynch/Age Wave study.
According to encore.org, a nonprofit organization for those who want to find “passion, purpose and a paycheck in the second half of life,” most “encore career” job opportunities seem to fall into five categories: education, health care, the environment, government and the nonprofit world. These offer the most opportunity for seniors to continue to be out in the workforce while doing something worthwhile. And in a way, Leahy has done all of the above.
As for Leahy, now that she is nearing 80, she likes that she can pick and choose when she wants to work. And while regaining her nursing license at this point may be a bit too much to take on, she seems in no hurry to slow things down. In addition to her guide job at Shaker Village, she also falls back into her old nursing ways by being a home health aide for an elderly couple in Hopkinton for the organization Visiting Angels, and occasionally drives seniors to their doctors appointments. “Much of what I’m doing is still very related to nursing,” says Leahy. “I really do miss it. In fact, I’m always reading the classified jobs in the nursing world and think ‘Oh, that sounds good!’”
Leahy knows that working might not last forever. “What do they say? ‘Old age is not for sissies’? I have been blessed and I realize if you are in good health it certainly makes everything so much easier. As your body gets older, you know there are some things you can see coming,” she says. “Sometimes I think what if I can’t [pointing to her car]? When is it time to stop driving? I think, well, I love to read, I knit, there is stuff I can do.” Still, if she had to choose right now, she’ll take getting out and helping people, whether it’s a group of tourists at Shaker Village or an elderly couple in need of some checking up on. “When most of your working life you have to leave your house every day and go to work, just to be home is wonderful, so frankly right now I can’t imagine not having a reason to leave my house that makes me feel good when I get back from doing it.”
Phases of the New Retirement Years
While retirement used to represent working up until a certain age and then living a life of leisure on permanent vacation, today’s retirees are giving new meaning to what retirement can be. According to the Merrill Lynch/Age Wave study, retirement today typically involves four phases:
- Pre-retirement: More than a third of those getting ready to retire within five years, but who still want to work in some capacity, will start preparing for their post-retirement career during this time; this number rises to 54 percent as they get within two years of retirement.
- Career intermission: After retiring, most seniors say they need some time to relax and regroup. More than half (52 percent) of working retirees say they took a break when they first retired, usually on average for about 2.5 years.
- Reengagement: Once they’ve recharged, retirees are likely to re-enter the workplace in some capacity. Typically this phase lasts close to a decade and combines a balance between work and leisure, and are more apt to work part-time or be self-employed.
- Leisure: This last phase of retirement is when seniors want to finally relax, socialize, travel and focus on other priorities. Sometimes health problems will precipitate stopping work altogether or they simply are not enjoying working as much as they used to.
For more information about the “Work in Retirement: Myths and Motivations,” study, visit ml.com/retirementstudy.