Threats to retirement security are everywhere. The list is topped by the recession-fueled impact on retirement confidence: People haven't set aside nearly enough money to fund their retirements. Next on the list is the regular drumbeat from critics that the Social Security system is running out of money and won't be able to honor its current promises to people nearing retirement. Perhaps the third stake in the heart of retirement is that people are living longer and longer, raising legitimate fears they will outlive their money.
All well and good, perhaps. But these concerns have obscured the compelling arguments against ever retiring, except for physical reasons. The short list of reasons never to retire include:
1. There is no physical reason to retire.
2. Continued work can support healthy aging, including better physical and mental health.
3. Well-being and happiness are boosted when people are engaged in challenging and meaningful activities. Work is a major place to find such activities in our society.
4. Older people have rich experience and mentoring skills to help enrich the workplace experiences of younger colleagues.
5. Declining numbers of younger workers, courtesy of lower fertility rates, will raise the need to retain older employees in the workforce.
6. We need and like the money, and shorter retirements sharply cut the risk we will outlive our assets.
There are physically demanding jobs that wear people out by the time they hit their 60s. Other people have suffered disabling injuries and diseases, some related to work, and simply cannot hold demanding jobs any longer. We have safety nets for these folks, although they should be stronger, especially as support rises for raising the official retirement age to 68 or even 70.
For the rest of us, retirement is, quite frankly, often a default choice that we've been brainwashed into accepting. Saying that it's time to retire becomes less and less relevant with each passing year. Not only are we living longer, but the quality of our lives in older age can also improve. Physically taxing jobs are disappearing. Knowledge jobs can be done quite well by older people.
Continuing to work keeps people engaged and requires learning new skills. While the perfect antidote to the hazards of aging has not yet been identified, performing meaningful work is certainly a major part of the answer. For people who have "retired" in a technical sense, there has been a boom in encore careers and other volunteer experiences. Many of these people are working as hard and effectively as they ever have, and reaping big health and wellness benefits (although clearly not earning commensurately large paychecks).
The recession and painfully slow jobs recovery that has followed have occasioned some sniping at older workers. It is time for them to move on, we're told, and to open up slots for deserving younger job candidates. Similar "job stealing" charges have been levied at illegal immigrants. This is an understandable but short-sighted reaction. Labor shortages will be making headlines in a few years, and we'll need workers of all ages and origins.
The financial argument for staying at work has, of course, been front and center in the past few years. But labor-force participation rates for older people have been rising for 20 years, and financial motivations were important even before the recession. Beyond the money, there have been other benefits as well.
Older employees are ceasing to be oddities in the workplace. Recognition and sensitivity to multigenerational workforces have been growing. Older workers thus are more likely to be accepted by younger colleagues and managers.
Successful people have seldom selected retirement when they turn 65. Warren Buffett may be the poster child for lifetime employment, but he is hardly unique. Changing the "65 and out" mindset is helped by greater social acceptance of an extended working role for older people. This transition becomes even more powerful when the older person not only accepts a different future but embraces it.