Why Older Americans Are Happier at Work

Workers in their 60s enjoy their jobs more than their younger colleagues.

Charles Schwab older worker chart
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At 65, W. Andrew "Andy" Achenbaum, a professor of history and social work at the University of Houston, doesn't plan on retiring anytime soon. "At this point, I'm sort of an elder of the tribe … I don't want to waste my time doing things that aren't meaningful to me and hopefully constructive to others," he says. To him, mentoring students, teaching, and writing are among the most meaningful activities he can pursue.

A new survey from Charles Schwab suggests that Achenbaum is not an anomaly. In fact, 32 percent of 60-something middle-income workers surveyed said they don't want to retire. Three in four respondents between the ages of 50 and 69 said they are "sticking with their jobs because they want to," and not because they have to for financial reasons. And one in four workers say this is "the happiest time in their working career."

"As you get older, the more you like your job," says Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, senior vice president of Schwab Community Services. "Many of them said they're happy with their jobs and want to be there," she adds.

While part of the motivation seems to be enjoyment and satisfaction, financial security is also a big factor. Among workers in their 50s, 64 percent said they are still working because they need the money. Among workers in their 60s, 55 percent said the same. "Fifty-somethings have more financial pressure and have a larger percentage of grown kids still living at home," says Schwab-Pomerantz. Many 50- and 60-somethings also face the sandwich-generation pressure of simultaneously providing financial assistance to their aging parents.

Almost seven in 10 respondents said they worry about needing to take care of a family member and four in 10 said they still have children living at home. Respondents also said leaving an inheritance was not as much of a priority.

Interestingly, 50-somethings were more likely than 60-somethings to say they felt "stuck" in their jobs and to report that they are still working for financial reasons, not personal satisfaction. Schwab-Pomerantz says that could be because more people in their 60s have scaled back to part-time or flexible work, which can be easier to enjoy. Also, people who dislike their jobs might be more likely to quit or retire by the time they reach their 60s, while people in their 50s continue to stick it out.

A survey released Wednesday from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies similarly found that most workers plan to work past age 65, and 54 percent say they will continue working in some capacity after they retire. Just four in 10 say they think they are building a "sufficient" nest egg to fund retirement.

"There is a group of people who will continue working because they need the income, and they want to save up before dipping into Social Security and savings. And because we're living longer and healthier, why not keep working?" says Kerry Hannon, author of What's Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job.

Hannon adds that as people age, they also start considering their legacy and what they can do to give back. Often, it's by continuing to practice the skills they spent their careers building. She adds that they frequently do so outside the constraints of a full-time job, by working part-time, starting a small business, or creating a small nonprofit organization. "It's an opportunity to use your existing skills in a new way," she says.

In contrast, many baby boomers' parents saw retirement as a chance to completely break off contact from the working world, says Hannon. It was a time to travel and visit grandchildren. "They had pensions. They had a financial cushion that most of us don't have … We always have an eye toward making money and having some sort of income stream," she says, especially after the financial crisis that wreaked havoc on so many boomers' retirement accounts. "It's so self-empowering to continue to make money, so if the market goes a little kooky, you don't freak out," she adds.