Working Into Your 70s: A Smart Retirement Move

Extending your working shelf life means extending your savings.

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In 2009, Pamela Harris, then 61, realized the future she'd anticipated just a few years earlier was going to be different than she'd thought. For one thing, Harris still got tremendous satisfaction from her law practice. For another, the financial meltdown had eaten into her profits and her investments along with everyone else's. "It became clear I was going to have to rethink," says Harris, who lives in Falcon Heights, Minn. Rethink she did. Today Harris is pursuing a master's degree in library and information science at St. Catherine University, something she'd always dreamed of doing, while practicing full time. In three years, at 67, she figures she'll have a wealth of ways to work at least part time into her 70s. "Some friends think [pursuing a library science degree] is a ridiculous idea," she admits. "I have decided that these are people with less imagination than I had thought."

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It doesn't take much imagination to see that retirement at age 65 is increasingly a nonstarter. Home values have plunged in city after city; since the housing crash began, prices have dropped as much as 70 percent in Phoenix, for example, and up to 65 percent in Miami. While the stock market has bounced back from its low point in 2009, the S&P 500 in mid-September was still a painful 23 percent below its 2007 peak. Meanwhile, Social Security will replace just 30 percent of the typical worker's pre-retirement income by 2030, compared with 39 percent in 2000. Fully half of Americans say they're not confident they've saved enough for retirement, up from 29 percent in 2007, an annual survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute reveals. Consider: To be reasonably sure of being able just to cover their health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses once they start Medicare coverage, a married couple, by one projection, will need a healthcare kitty of $231,000 to $287,000.

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It's little wonder that more people are working into their 70s (or planning to). "The old vision of leisure-based retirement is yesterday's conversation," says Marci Alboher, vice president of Civic Ventures, a nonprofit think tank in San Francisco dedicated to baby boomer issues. "The new conversation is, how are we going to work in those years?" One of the smartest retirement investments you can make these days may be to extend your own working shelf life.

Mid-career folks can begin by imagining a job they might actually want to do into their 70s, bearing in mind that what was entirely satisfying during their wealth-building 30s may feel empty in the senior years. "As people get older, they care more about how they're spending their time, and their motivation changes," says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. Encore Careers (www.encore.org), an online publication from Civic Ventures focused on meaningful later-stage work, and AARP (www.aarp.org/work) both offer extensive advice and resources to people over 50 figuring out their next steps.

"I realized I wanted to give back to the community," says Ed Jones of Tempe, Ariz., 62, who took part in a job-training program for older workers at Gateway Community College in Phoenix. In 2009, Jones left Safeway, where he'd worked in training and management, then tried unsuccessfully to come back out of retirement in 2010 after his real estate investments and 401(k) went south. Dozens of résumés for similar management positions had produced no leads. Taking career and personality assessments helped him think of unexpected ways he could use his experience in organization and training, and led him to an unpaid internship at a nonprofit providing health, wellness, and other support programs to residents of central Arizona. He developed a proposal for a resource center to help clients find employment, and has been hired as a contractor to work on grant applications and health services initiatives while waiting for funding for the center to come through. "This has opened up a whole new area for me, in work that I can imagine doing either within an organization or maybe eventually as my own business," Jones says.