What’s the Deal with Unretirement?

The vanguard of the boomer bulge is reaching retirement age. At least, they’re reaching the age at which people have traditionally retired since the early 1900s: i.e 65. Of course, when 65 was originally set as the standard (and often mandatory) retirement age, most people died within a few years of retirement. These post-retirement sunset years were a well-deserved rest after a lifetime of work and represented a short final chapter for most people.

Photo by Emilio Labrador, Senior Guard, Flickr

Things have changed.  The trend toward earlier and earlier retirement that characterized the last century has reversed. People are living much longer and many are still active and engaged well into their nineties. What used to be a few years to wind-down has become, for many, a decades-long “third age,” rife with possibility.

For this influential, post-WWII generation known as the baby boomers, the spectre of traditional retirement looms large—and it’s not entirely welcome. Hence the emergence of age discrimination  as a recognized human rights issue in the workplace and the gradual disappearance of mandatory retirement.

First Came Proretirement

Frederic Hudson, expert in adult change, coined the phrase proretirement in the early 1990s to define an increasingly common desire to “begin anew” in the later years. According to Hudson, proretirement represented an individual’s determination to resist compartmentalizing and a refusal to defer “true” interests until retirement. The intent of proretirement was instead to adopt “an increased drive for living life to its fullest on a day-to-day basis” now.[1]

In essence, protirement is about embracing the concept of retiring from what you have to do to what you want to do. It advocates proactively making the changes you need to make today in order to realize your desired future. Protirement may or may not include working after age 65, but it definitely doesn’t involve sitting around after retirement waiting for life to end.

And Now Unretirement

More recently, we’ve seen the emergence of the term “unretirement.” In his book, Unretirement: How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life, author Chris Farrell notes that the boomer generation is already embracing unretirement by extending their working lives; often with new careers, entrepreneurial ventures, and volunteer service. He sees this as a natural response to healthier aging and recent economic challenges. Rather than representing a potential drain on the system, however, he presents unretirement as an opportunity to enrich the American workplace, treasury, and society overall.

Whether or not you agree with Farrell’s perspective, the unretirement phenomenon seems real enough. According to the 2014 annual retirement survey conducted by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies:

  • 65% percent of Baby Boomer workers plan to work past age 65 or do not plan to retire.
  • While 62% of those who plan to keep working state their main reason as income or health benefits, 34% say they plan to continue working for enjoyment.
  • 68% of Baby Boomer workers envision a phased transition into retirement during which they will either continue working, reduce hours with more leisure time to enjoy life, or work in a different capacity that is less demanding and/or brings greater personal satisfaction.

Ten thousand American workers are turning 65 every year and employers struggle to understand and manage the impact of this demographic shift on the workplace. Perhaps unretirement is one answer that works for both aging workers and their employers?

What Does it Mean for Employers?

Many employers fought against the elimination of mandatory retirement. Apparently, the downside of losing an older worker’s experience and expertise was offset by guaranteed access to a simple mechanism for retiring aging employees without having to test for or demonstrate flagging performance.

Again, things are changing. With healthier aging, people are remaining productive longer. The nature of work has also changed and more jobs rely on cognitive abilities, critical thinking skills and acquired knowledge, which many older workers have in spades. Although ageism in hiring is still commonplace, some employers are beginning to think about the potential of tapping into an experienced workforce in more creative ways. In fact, the same retirement survey referenced above also found that 88% of employers agree they are supportive of their employees working past age 65.

In spite of that result, very few employers have a formal phased retirement plan in place or present the option to older employees. Clearly a disconnect exists. As employers continue to explore the changing world of work with more flexible work hours, contingent workers, and work-from-home policies; adding some unretirement options for more experienced workers is a logical next step. If you’re still on the fence and need more evidence of things to come, consider the federal government’s new phased retirement program.


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