Why ‘unretirement’ is bringing older workers back into the workplace
Q. I happily retired two years ago as a senior manager of a manufacturing company. Given my work ethic and commitment, several friends asked if I was planning to go back to work. My answer was, “Definitely no. There is a lot more to life than news, weather and sports.” My friends were surprised by my answer. Was their question unusual? And am I atypical? B.J.
You are not atypical. Millions of retirees in the U.S. are happy with their decision to retire and leave the work arena.
However, your friends’ question is not unusual given the increased popularity of the relatively new term called “unretirement.” It simply refers to people who are retired and decide to go back to work in a field that is familiar or unfamiliar to them.
Unretirement recently has been popularized by football player Tom Brady. On February 1, 2022, at age 44 Brady retired and then unretired on March 13 of the same year. One year later, Brady retired once again, and as of March 7, he was sticking with it. Granted, Brady is not your usual retiree. However, he is a good example of the growing unretirement trend.
According to an NBC broadcast on May 5, 2023, “Unretirement is becoming a hot new trend in the sizzling U.S. labor market.” Several factors are contributing to this trend: a thriving market where retirees have lots of choices, inflation that can create uncertainty about financial security and a volatile stock market. Then, there are always the uncertainties of COVID-19 and its impact.
For many, working is not only about money. It can provide a structure to one’s day, opportunities for social contact and a sense of purpose. Note, having a sense of purpose is one of the characteristics of the longest-lived people in Okinawa. They call it “ikigai,” a reason to get up in the morning.
For many, retirement is a time for choices and options. It’s personal. Yet retirement has been referred to as a roleless role, a position where no one expects anything from you. Work can fill that vacuum. It can provide opportunities to create, convene, produce, help, support, grow and just have a place to show up.
Award-winning journalist and author Chris Farrell devotes his entire book on the subject with this title: “Unretirement: How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life” (Bloomsbury Press, 2014). Farrell writes, “Welcome to unretirement, a revolution in the making. He writes, “We are reimagining the last third of life building on a better educated, healthier workforce that can continue to earn an income well into the traditional retirement years.” As a qualifier, he acknowledges that not all retirees are sufficiently healthy to be part of this unretirement movement.
Currently, 3.2 percent of retirees have unretired, which is close to where it was before the pandemic. One out of six retirees is considering a return to work. About half have unretired because of financial need, nearly half because of boredom; slightly less than half report loneliness as their motivation.
The U.S. is not the only industrialized nation that recognizes this unretirement phenomenon. It has emerged in New Zealand and Japan as well as Poland, Italy and Ireland.
In general, America is a work-oriented society with workers putting in more hours than their counterparts in many other industrialized countries. The Protestant work ethic remains strong.
The French seem to value their time in retirement by not working. As the French Senate voted to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64, more than one million workers went on strike nationwide. A New York Times article of March 8, 2023, captured a sentiment about their outlook on retirement. A money manager in Paris is quoted as saying, “Life is not just about working; there is a time for work and then a time for personal development.” Others add, “There is a vision in France that working time is time waiting to be able to enjoy life” while another added, “People shouldn’t wait for retirement to have liberty.”
A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators are discussing raising the age for Social Security to age 70. If that becomes policy, will we react similarly to the French?
Thank you, B.J., for your good question. Enjoy your retirement knowing that unretirement can be an option. And as a reminder, know that kindness is everything.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity