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The Case for Unretirement

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Since 2000, the number of people aged 65 and over who continue to remain employed has increased steadily. A large number of these professionals have gone through what economists call “unretirement,” the term for taking the employment U-turn from retired to back to work. For instance, a 2017 survey from RAND Corporation found that “almost 40 percent of workers over 65 had previously, at some point, retired.” Kathleen Mullen, RAND senior economist and co-author of its American Working Conditions Survey points to this study’s “evidence that retirement is fluid […] There’s less of the traditional schedule: work to a certain age, retire, see the world. We see people lengthening their careers.”

So what’s going on? Why are so many people attempting retirement but quitting it? It’s one thing to observe that veteran professionals are staying in the workforce longer, but it’s another to understand why. As Paul Davidson for USA Today explains it in his piece on workplace solutions to delay retirement,

“Faced with a wave of Baby Boomer retirements and a worsening labor shortage, many employers are trying to hold on to their older workers, persuade some to return after retirement and even recruit those retired from other companies. They’re offering flexible arrangements that include part-time schedules and phased retirements that gradually reduce hours. And they’re often receptive to work-at-home set-ups.”

As lifespan continues to increase and as people enjoy increased years of continued physical and mental prime, more seasoned professionals are feeling the pull to keep bringing their deep expertise as well as their drive and focus to an economy that desperately needs them. Concurrently, employers are finding themselves best situated to retain these professionals when they open themselves up to a number of logistical arrangements that allow these veteran workers to postpone their retirement. As Jacqueline James, co-director of the Boston College Center on Aging and Work says, “If you have good employees, you want to keep them.” And while detractors of this openminded approach to retaining seasoned professionals often bemoan older workers as burned out or technically inept, according to Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School in Philadelphia, they actually “have lower rates of absenteeism, less turnover, better job performance and adapt well to new technology.”

The future of successful organizations means broadening the approach to retaining expert, veteran talent. It’s not a trend, but a fact of successful business practice. The future economically and socially involves a lot more people working, but these unretired people are happy about it—they’re working productively, in ways that complement their lifestyle, personal needs, and skill sets. For the veteran professional with that itch to keep working, what could be more compelling than the case for unretirement?

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