The Working in Retirement Study: Five Assumptions the Study Contests

10/06/2010 11:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Ellen Galinsky, Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, and Melissa Brown

Today, we at the Families and Work Institute and the Sloan Center on Aging and Work released our new study on Working in Retirement: A 21st Century Phenomenon. Like many of the studies based on Families and Work Institute's ongoing nationally representative study, the National Study of the Changing Workforce, this report reveals important differences between assumption and reality.

Assumption 1: Careers Are Linear
There is a television ad that depicts the popular notion of retirement. It shows a figure climbing up a steep mountain labeled "career," reaching the top and then leaping over a deep precipice onto the top of another mountain, labeled "retirement." The assumption reflected by this ad and by the terminology of a "career ladder" is that life is linear -- we move from education to careers or work to retirement. But life isn't like that.

Today, we move in and out of education, in and out of the workforce, and in and out of retirement. In the Families and Work Institute's research, we continue to study what we call flex-careers. "Working in retirement" used to be seen as an oxymoron, but no longer.

Finding: 20% of U.S. workers over 50 years old have fully retired from a job and are now working.

Assumption 2: People Work in Retirement Because They Have to
We tend to think that people are working in retirement because they can't afford to quit. In our study, we look at the reasons why people take retirement jobs. People could indicate any number of reasons, rather than just one, and we find that, in fact, their reasons do coexist. Many working retirees work to keep earning money to retire more comfortably in the future (53%); and because their income from other sources is not enough (18%). However, substantial proportions also report that they would be bored not working (31%); that they want to feel productive, useful, and helpful (18%); that they like to interact with people (13%); and that they have jobs that are fun (15%).

Finding: Retired workers are in the labor force both because they have to and want to.

Assumption 3: Older Workers Don't Work Very Hard
Yes, working retirees over 50 are more likely than those who haven't retired to work part-time (47% versus 14%, respectively), but they aren't coasting. Working retirees work 33 hours per week on average, compared with 42 hours per week for those over 50 who haven't yet retired.
Perhaps surprisingly, we find that working retirees have better jobs than those who haven't retired in three respects. They are more likely to experience support from their supervisors in doing their jobs, to be treated with respect, and to have a better fit between their work and their personal or family lives.

Finding: Working retirees are working hard and in some ways have better jobs than their pre-retirement jobs.

Assumption 4: There Is Widespread Tension Between Older Workers and Younger Bosses
Although tension between older workers and younger bosses makes a good storyline for television and the movies, it is far less prevalent than one might imagine. When we look at all workers 50 and older, we find that 45% do have supervisors who are younger. But only 10% of these workers report having supervisors who aren't supportive when work problems arise. Interestingly, this figure doesn't differ significantly from the percentage of those over 50 who have non-supportive supervisors who are the same age or older. And when we look at workers under 50, we find that among those with older supervisors, 9% have non-supportive bosses.

Finding: Approximately one in ten workers has a supervisor who isn't supportive when work problems arise -- regardless of the difference in age between the worker and his or her supervisor.

Assumption 5: Working in Retirement Will Disappear As a Phenomenon When the Recession Eases
In the 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce, we asked those 50 and older who had not yet retired whether or not they expect to work for pay after they retire from their main jobs, career, or lines of work. Overall, 75% expect to have retirement jobs!

Finding: Working in retirement has become the "new normal."