MONEY
05/15/2018 05:45 am ET Updated May 15, 2018

Why Are Boomers Still Working? Maybe We Just Don't Know How To Retire

Retirement should be a gradual change that we ease into, not an abrupt departure with false promises to stay in touch.
Courtesy of Ann Brenoff

Ann Brenoff’s “On The Fly” is a column about navigating growing older ― and a few other things.

I am a 68-year-old baby boomer who still works full time. I am precisely who younger people point to when they hear the reports that more of them can’t find jobs and more of me still have ours.

Even as their population numbers have swelled from 2007 to 2015, the number of  22- to 34-year-olds in the workplace has remained the same, while the number of retirement-age workers has grown 9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So why don’t I just retire and make room for someone younger to have a turn at the trough?

Every boomer has a different story, but as a collective group our defense has been a heartfelt “we need the money.” As a demographic, we got hit hard in the Great Recession, lost our jobs, our homes and our retirement savings, and so yes, we are still working to replace what we lost more than a decade ago. We are also caregivers to elderly parents, our adult children still live with us, our names are co-signed on college loans and second mortgages, so we have expenses ― many incurred in the pursuit of helping others. And lastly, we exist with the constant reminder that we could very well live into the triple digits whether we want to or not, thanks to modern science and right-to-die laws with more holes than Swiss cheese. Too bad neither Social Security or Medicare are enjoying the robust health or predictions of longevity that boomers appear to be having.

So yeah, we need the money. Except maybe that’s not all of it.

People need more than financial security to make the leap to retirement, says the Boston College Center for Retirement Research. Work gives us intangible benefits ― things like a sense of worth, the knowledge that we are making a contribution and a chance to be part of something. How do you replace all that?

It isn’t even just that my generation has “a notoriously hard-charging work ethic and drive to get ahead” that can “make it difficult to envision downshifting into the slower pace of retired life,” as Gallup found in 2014

No, it is something else. I don’t know how to retire. While I never thought of how to retire as something that needed to be learned or taught, perhaps it is.

The good news is that some corporations are changing their benefits to accommodate workers age 55 and older, mostly because we will account for 25 percent of the labor force by 2020. And some of those benefits include helping people learn how to not work anymore. Lessons include the obvious things like understanding retiree health care options and financial planning, but they also delve into what your retirement goals are. What will you do when the alarm clock no longer rings each morning?

Some companies are also providing the option of a phased-in retirement, where you go from full-time to part-time hours but keep all-important health benefits for you and your family members who need them. Herman Miller, the Michigan-based furniture company that employs 8,000 people worldwide, has a flexible retirement program that couples the reduction of hours for pending retirees with a coaching service. You aren’t just handed a gold watch and shown the door with insincere promises made about staying in touch; you first discuss things like setting goals. And it’s a two-way street: Retiring employees put together a knowledge-transfer plan to mentor their replacements. The flex program gives employees six months to two years to phase out of their jobs.

Herman Miller also lets all workers take up to 12 unpaid weeks off while their health benefits continue. This provides a good taste of retired life, and we suspect that more than a few have used it to test their snowbird wings, trading in the cold Michigan winter for a warmer climate to see if they like it. 

I like the idea of testing out retirement before jumping in the deep end. I also like the idea that retirement could be a gradual change where the balance shifts away from work and more into post-work leisure over the course of a few months or years.

In the meantime, I have regular conversations with my financial planner, Jason, who probably serves in equal parts as my financial advisor and therapist. When I ask Jason when I can retire, I secretly hope his answer will be, “When I tell you,” because honestly, I just might need someone else to decide this for me. 

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