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Well-Being in Retirement: Working in Retirement Thumbnail

Well-Being in Retirement: Working in Retirement

This blog accompanies Episode 9 of The Retirement Oasis Podcast. To listen to the podcast, you can visit your favorite podcast platform (Apple, Stitcher, Podbean, etc.) or go here: 

In today’s episode, we will cover the fourth domain of finding fulfillment in retirement, and that is Work.  Work should be combined and somewhat balanced with the other three domains or types of activities in retirement.  As a reminder, if you have not listened to those episodes or don’t recall, the other areas of fulfillment we categorize as Leisure, Connections – or Relationships, and Renewal. The Renewal aspect included improving your overall health whether it is physical health, mental health, or spiritual health.

Going back even further were some episodes that discussed why the concept of retirement today is vastly different than it was for our grandparents, and how we have such a great opportunity to craft the ideal retirement today. The episodes 3 and 4 also discussed keys to finding your ideal life in retirement, and many of those keys were adopting the right mindset and being positive and proactive in going into retirement. So, I would encourage you to go back and listen to those episodes for more of the basic framework of designing your ideal retirement.

But, today again, we will focus on working in retirement.

You might say…what?   I’m retiring. That means I’m no longer working!  Au contraire – the new retirement in today’s age may mean you work in one form or the other in retirement. It can be paid work or it can be unpaid – or volunteer – work.  More and more “retirees” continue to work in some form in retirement for a variety of reasons, and there is plenty of literature on this phenomenon.[1] Some say it is a great time to “focus on discarded dreams…or delayed discoveries”.[2]

How popular is working in retirement?  The trend of retirees working is growing. According to AARP, more than 20% of those over age 65 are either working or looking for work as of 2019. That is a twofold increase of the same statistic in 1985.[3] And, those who are working increasingly have a college degree. The number of those looking to work in some form in retirement is likely to increase by all indications.[4]

Definition of work. Before we describe the benefits of work, let’s define what we mean.   Don’t think of it as a “job” in the traditional sense with tough bosses and strict deadlines. I l like how Mitch Anthony described it – “an engagement that brings value to others and meaning to me.”[5]

 Again, this can be paid or unpaid work. The type of paid work can vary from being a regular employee that gets a W2 to an independent consultant where you may have more flexibility to having your own business.

Benefits of Work in Retirement.

During our working years, many of us may not recognize the non-financial benefits of work. Too often, we see work as the means to supply resources to meeting our current and future living expenses. We may have had that concept of work from our early years or we may have developed that mindset as our career progressed. Alternatively, you may be someone that has always enjoyed your work and saw the non-financial benefits that would could bring. Regardless, my bet is that most of you will not have a gameplan in retirement to replace the benefits that work provides.   As we said earlier, a life of leisure alone does not lead to fulfillment. Mitch Anthony said that it is actually “all play and no work” that make Jack a dull boy.[6]  It is such an important part of retirement that Anthony says it is not an either-or proposition – it is a matter of to what extent that you will engage in work in retirement.[7]

Some of the benefits of work that go beyond compensation include the following:

  • Sense of purpose.[8]
    • Mental benefits including intellectual stimulation and engaging in creative tasks.
    • Social and relationship connections.
    • Identity.
    • Opportunity for growth.[9]

 In other worlds, as researcher, commentator, and social entrepreneur Mark Freedman put it, it’s not freedom from work that retirees are now necessarily looking for – rather, they are yearning for “freedom to work, in ways that hold the promise of personal fulfillment, economic benefit, and social renewal.”[10] 

Work has also been shown to be good for mental health, better physical health and aging, and increasing longevity. Indeed, working in retirement can be good for our mental health. There was a 2001 Cornell study that found that for men who retired from their primary career and went back to work in some form after retirement experienced the least depression.[11]  If someone is a workaholic, stopping work cold turkey in retirement can be especially dangerous.

Some studies indicate that working longer can lead to aging slow as well as increasing longevity.[12]

The negative impact of retiring has also been researched. According to a paper published in 2008 – the “The Effects of Retirement on Physical and Mental Health Outcomes”  -- there are certainly negative implications of completely retiring: “complete retirement leads to a 5-16 percent increase in difficulties associated with mobility and daily activities, a 5-6 percent increase in illness conditions, and 6-9 percent decline in mental health, over an average post-retirement period of six years.”[13] 

Evaluate your values, gifts, strengths, skills and weaknesses

Before we decide what type of work, if any, we want to do, it is important to take a step back and evaluate your gifts and values as well as your skills and weaknesses. After all, you may have much more freedom in deciding what you want to do in retirement; why not have it fit with your gifts and values? What gifts seem natural to you and what gifts do you enjoy providing others?

As career counselor Jeri Sedlar wrote, since skills are generally learned, it is important to not put too much of an emphasis on skills. You may not want to use some or all of your skills you developed during your working years, and you can learn new ones in this new phase of retirement.[14] So, you should not pigeonhole yourself in thinking you have to do the same type of work that you did in your previous career(s).

In previous blogs and episodes about finding fulfillment with your activities overall, we discussed the need to understand your drivers, or personal motivators that allow us to choose activities – or jobs – that make us tick. Sedlar talked about this extensively in their book Don’t Retire, Rewire.  The drivers include things such as accomplishments, action, friendship, intellectual stimulation, problem solving, mentoring, prestige, and structure, among many others.[15]

Similarly, using StrengthsFinders, or something like this, could also help you evaluate how you are wired and what motivates you in doing your job. Many experts say that StrengthsFinders does not necessarily point you to the right job, but it merely helps you clarify what the best way for you to do your job. Regardless, I think a tool such as StrengthsFinders can certainly help you find those kinds of positions that will allow you to use your strengths because not all jobs will. An idea behind StrengthsFinders is that we are happiest in jobs that utilize our strengths, so why shouldn’t we use this type of tool to find a job that is matches our strengths.[16] Another way of looking at one’s strengths is the approach developed by Martin Seligman in the Values in Action Classification of Strength as explained in What Color is Your Parachute and elsewhere.[17] 

Even if we don’t find a true calling in a job and you are otherwise financially able to be flexible in the type of job you choose, choose a fun job.  Will you jump out of bed in the morning to go to it?

There are many ways to provide further discovery to find the ideal work role and environment for you, and we will cover that in future episodes. Sedlar and Dr. Phyllis Horne, among others, who are both career experts, provide various exercises to help you find your ideal situation and how to make that a reality.[18]

Extra Thoughts on Work in Retirement

Be true to yourself – avoid the trappings. If you are financial able to fully retire yet have a true calling to work in some capacity, avoid the usual trappings that come with a typical career, including how much you will make, the prestige of the position, and what others might think. More than likely, we felt some of these trappings in our career. Time to put those to the wayside because retirement is your time.

Be careful of too much work. As we discussed earlier, it is important to reflect on whether you are working merely because you value a strong work ethic. Zelinksi would say we need to replace the work ethic with the enjoyment etic, and that we may fruitlessly be working without discovering our true calling. Others may say that work is an important part of retirement, but we should strike the right balance. Are you working too much at the sacrifice of leisure, connectedness, and renewal? For those that are workaholics, it will be difficult to pull back the reigns too much but there is a lot at stake – you have one life in retirement to live a fulfilled life.

Be cognizant of impact on others. Along the lines of being wise with your time and considering how much time you will allocate to work in retirement, be sure you have transparent discussions with others that might be impacted by your choice. As your choice of work may require a decent amount of time and energy, be sure to factor in your important relationships into this equation. How does your choice impact your spouse, your parents, and your children?  Ultimately, you may have to compromise in your choice of work or find creative ways for everyone to get close to what they want.

Don’t show your cards too early. Before retiring or considering different options in semi-retirement, you will want to be careful about showing all of your cards to your current employer. You don’t want to fish around too much about retirement or part-time work if that would hurt your career. Depending on the culture of the company and your situation, you will have to use your discretion on deciding how transparent you can be about considering and exploring your “retirement work” options.

What are some alternative arrangements for paid work in retirement?

As we stated earlier, you will have more flexibility to define your work in retirement. It can be for the old fashioned W2 employee route, it can be an independent contractor or freelance work, or it can be owning your own business. With today’s increased mobility and flexibility, it may be a combination of those during your retirement years. You may be able to secure work that has a lot more flexibility in your hours, and that is why many retirees are willing to continue to work. It can be short-term such as seasonal work, or it can be part-time to give you flexibility with your other activities.

At this stage, after you have adequate or near adequate resources for retirement, you can call the shots. Dr. Phyllis Horner, who is a mid-career and pre-retirement coach, describes this stage of career as a “late career pathway” and defines it as “paid work you can do at your own pace. You choose your preferred environment, with your chosen schedule, and number of hours. You work with the type of people you want to be around. You use your natural talents and interests for a purpose you value. And, you work for a few years or many years, whether you are fully healthy physically or not.[19]

Should you retire in the first place? Before I do talk about more of the options for paid work in retirement, I want to emphasize that the near-retiree should consider whether they truly want to retire from their main job in the first place. Unfortunately, society has put an age marker on what the right retirement age is.  We often think that the right retirement age is somewhere between ages 62 and 65. How did we come up with those numbers?  I guess it ties to the ages when we can collect Social Security benefits.  Age 62 is generally the first year someone can begin collecting Social Security and age 65 was the original first Full Retirement Age where someone can collect the normal Social Security retirement benefit. Despite these ages being established in 1935, we still think of those ages as the right time to retire from our primary work. While I am not suggesting that those are necessarily bad ages to “retire”, I would encourage you to take a step back and ask yourself why you want to retire.  If you are finding meaning and purpose in your work, you are still able to perform at a high level, you are compensated well for it, and you are otherwise happy with a balanced life, is retiring the right thing for you?

For those that really have enjoyed their work or are classified as workaholics yet want to move towards more of a retirement, pursuing part-time work in semi-retirement may be the healthy option. As we stated earlier, stopping work completely may be counterproductive for the workaholic’s health.

Stay with the same company in reduced capacity or different role. Let’s say the time is right to retire from your current position. The options for continuing to work in retirement may include continuing to work for the same company but in a reduced capacity. Or, perhaps it is continuing to work for the same company but a slightly different position (e.g., technical role to a business development role). There are a host of benefits of remaining with the same employer, including a continuation of the same benefits and continued relationships with your fellow employees, and the continued use of your institutional knowledge that both your employer and yourself can benefit from.

Go to a different company in the same industry?  Different industry in the same role?  Outside of working for the same company, you can stay in the same field and industry and work less hours in a similar or slightly different role. Or, perhaps you stay in the same field like marketing but want to work in a different industry. This can be quite exciting, especially if you are the learner type. Having to learn a whole new industry, the marketplace, and the consumer can be invigorating in retirement even if it might be part-time.

Start a totally new career. If you want to get a bit more extreme, you can enter a totally new career.   If you retire in your 60s, you might have 10 or 15 years of strong work years left. In today’s age, that’s a long time to be in one career. Of course, there are training considerations.  How much formal or informal education will be needed? What is both the time and financial commitment that will be needed?

Start and own a business. Getting even more extreme is starting your own business in retirement.[20] That indeed does not sound like retirement at all, but this trend is definitely growing amongst boomers. A few years ago, it was reported that Americans age 55 to 65 are the largest age group to start a business.  

I have heard from a number of people that have told me as they approach retirement that being an entrepreneur was a lifelong passion, but they could just never take the risk and plunge in their early years as they wanted to ensure they were providing for their family and their own retirement. Now that they feel financially secure, they are able to sow their entrepreneurial oats. It can be in the same industry or a totally new industry. Of course, the ambitions for the businesses can be wide ranging, but you obviously have to understand the time and financial commitment that will be involved.

While there may not be as much risk and stress that is on the line as starting a new business when you have three young children at home, there will nevertheless be some stress to owning a business that perhaps you have not experienced before.  For those nearing retirement that are looking to start a business, I would encourage you to do a full evaluation of your overall short-term and long-term goals and pursuits in retirement before you take this plunge.

And, of course, if you are doing retirement with a significant other, involve him or her in this conversation.  You might be ready for starting a business, but your spouse may be ready to retire to Europe.

What’s better than starting a business? Starting a business from a hobby. Some folks have successfully changed an avocation to a vocation. There are many options here. As author and career counselor Robin Ryan said, if you immerse yourself in a hobby, a job may just in fact find you.[21]

So, working for some type of compensation will indeed be pursued by many of you. Sure, there may be financial considerations, but hopefully the non-financial considerations for choosing the type and extent of work will be the dominant factors. You can then seek work that perhaps gives you more meaning in retirement than what your career provided.

Volunteering as Work 

As we stated earlier, work in retirement does not necessarily mean paid work. Volunteering in retirement may be a huge part of your fulfilling retirement. While paid work can provide many benefits – both financial and non-financial – taking on volunteer work during retirement can be one of the most rewarding experiences in retirement. All of the research indicates that this can have a huge impact on retiree satisfaction yet not as many retirees participate or they may participate much less than the research suggests they should.

Benefits of Volunteering in Retirement

Volunteer work could have all of the benefits that “work” entails as we discussed earlier, including keeping the brain active, being connected with others, engagement, purposeful living, and perhaps increased physical activity, among others. At a deeper level, it may satisfy the yearning we have to make a difference in someone or something.

There are additional benefits of giving. We have always heard that giving back benefits the giver more than the doer, and the research backs that up.[22] Mitch Anthony cites a Cornell University study that concludes that those who volunteer in retirement increase their self-esteem and gain more control over their life, and this helps promote successful aging.[23] Researcher Dr. Caroline Schwartz studied the impact of multiple sclerosis patients receiving peer support can and observed that those providing the support received more benefits than those patients that merely received support. She concluded that “helping others is associated with a higher level of mental health.”[24]

 Similarly, the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (“SCCB Survey”) found that “volunteers were 42% more likely to be happy than non-volunteers”.[25] 

While giving our time and energy can provide significant benefits to the giver, giving money has been found to contribute to happiness and fulfillment as well.  In the SCCB Survey, those who made monetary charitable gifts were “43% more likely to be very happy about their lives” when compared to those that did not make charitable gifts.[26] Combining one’s contribution of time and money to an organization that has meaning to the giver will undoubtedly lead to a more fulfilling retirement.[27]  The New York Times reported that retirees do indeed have increased levels of self-esteem and energy in light of this increased sense of purpose and contact with the community.[28]

Similarly, studies by Harvard Medical School professor and researcher George Vaillant studies the impact of generativity, or “the passing on what we have learned to future generations”[29] had a huge impact on the quality of life for those in their 70s. With community building via generativity, those in their 70s are more likely to have a “time of joy and not despair.”[30] Zelinski referenced a University of Michigan study that found that retirees who volunteer have a 67% lower risk of dying over a 7-year period than those that did not volunteer. [31]

As retirement coach Holly McFarland states, volunteering provides the retiree with the practical benefits of enjoying new experiences, learning new skills, expanding our current skillset, and even potentially giving us a new identity in retirement. In turn, these practical benefits can lead to the positive benefits referenced above.[32]

Types and Extent of Volunteering in Retirement

The benefits of volunteering are indeed significant. While arguably more retirees should be volunteering in light of the benefits, the research shows that a little over 25% of retirees do some type of community service.[33]

When volunteering, you will obviously want to choose a mission or cause that you deeply care about. Because, at the end of the day, you are still putting in your valuable time and having to deal with others, the cause will generally drive your activities.

There are different types of volunteer activity in retirement, and you should be cognizant of the following options and considerations.

  • Blend of paid and non-paid work. One thing to consider is a blend of paid and non-paid “volunteer” work. Perhaps you are passionate about a particular cause and would like to get more involved than merely serving on boards or the occasional service project or committee. Perhaps you want to take on a more active role whether it be in leadership or more consistent service, and you wouldn’t mind bringing in an additional paycheck in retirement. There may be non-profits that are in need of what you can provide while allowing you to use your gifts and passion to give back to the community.
  • Social entrepreneur. One other option to consider is being a social entrepreneur. If you are a go-getter, are well organized, have used entrepreneurial skills during your career, and are passionate about filling a vacuum to cure a societal ill in your community, then starting your own non-profit may be your ticket to a fulfilling retirement. This, too, can be involve an awful lot of time, can be draining, and can perhaps costly in some situations, but the depth of your passion and calling and the eventual impact may far outweigh the costs.  Keep in mind here too that you do not have to go it alone. You may be able to find kindred spirits in a spouse, friend, or other community member to serve alongside you.   For workaholics – and especially entrepreneurs that sold their business – this may be especially up their alley.
  • Missions. For the more adventurous types, there may be mission type of work where you travel the globe to serve those in need. Whether it is serving through an established internationally known entity such as Peace Corps or a global missions’ team, you may find that this combination of adventure and service is the right fit for your retirement.  Zelinksi references Earthwatch Institute in Massachusetts as a good resource to connect volunteers for environmental research projects across the globe.[34] 
  • Just being available. While we have spoken with many formal ways to volunteer, your service to the community does not have to be in a formal manner. Sometimes, the simplest way of serving your neighbors and community is just being available, being open, and acting on small or large needs nearby. It might be merely taking food and lending an ear to a recent widow, helping to babysit a neighbor child whose parents might not otherwise be able to take time away, welcoming new neighbors to the community, etc. Impacting just one person – even if we think it appears minor on the surface -- can make an impact well beyond what we can see in the short-term.

 There is no doubt there is a clear opportunity and need for all of us to make a positive impact on individual lives, our communities, and the greater world at large. And, retirees are often well-positioned to fill this need from a time and/or money perspective.[35] How you decide to give of your resources in volunteer activities will depend on what provides meaning to you and how you prioritize these activities with the countless other ways you can spend your time in retirement. As noted above, the research emphatically states volunteering is a beneficial use of your time and energy in retirement.

In summary, there are many options and significant benefits of working in retirement. It can be paid or non-paid, but it is up to each retiree to craft how work plays in their retirement.

Summary of Work and Fulfillment in Retirement

So, that wraps up our initial series on designing an ideal retirement and the four domains of finding fulfillment in retirement.  Your retirement is unique to you, and we encourage you to plan well in advance by doing a lot of introspection on who you are and what you want to be in retirement. Retirement can be a great time to continue to peel back the onion on your true self. We should always be in growth mode and retirement is no different. In future episodes, we will dive into various nooks and crannies of designing a retirement and discuss in more detail what fulfillment can look like. We will also dive more into the financial aspects of retirement, including taxes, investments, and a host of other general financial planning topics.

[1] See Dr. Lydia Brontë. (1993). The Longevity Factor: The New Reality of Long Careers And How It Can Lead To Richer Lives. New York. Harper Collins. 

[2] Sedlar, J., & Miners, R. (1993). Don't Retire, REWIRE!, p. 12.

[3] https://www.aarp.org/work/employers/info-2019/americans-working-past-65.html. For a slightly older study by Gallup, see https://news.gallup.com/poll/181292/third-oldest-baby-boomers-working.aspx.

[4] Indeed, Anthony wrote that 83% of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers plan to continue working in some form after retirement.   According to the Society for Human Resources Management, 72% of pre-retirees plan to continue working in some form in retirement. Ryan, R. (2018). Retirement Reinvention. Penguin Books, p. 15.

[5] Anthony, M. (2008). The New Retirementality. Fourth Edition, p. 61.

[6] Anthony, M. (2008), p. 11.  

[7] Anthony, M. (2008), p. 98.  

[8] Researcher, commentator, and social entrepreneur Mark Freedman wrote that Baby Boomers in this new concept of work in retirement, don’t see this work as a “way-station between the end of midlife work and the beginning of full-on retirement”, but they are instead “attempting to find more from work, not less: more flexibility, to be sure, but equally more meaning and greater impact.” Freedman, M. (2007). Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life.  p. 20.

[9] Anthony, 2008, p. 61. For a more exhaustive list of “drivers”, or personal motivators, that are the basis for choosing how we “match our deepest needs”, see Sedlar & Miners, (1993), p. 51.

[10] Freedman. (2007), p. 56.

[11] Zelinski, E. (2015). How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free. Visions International, p. 24.

[12] See Freedman. (2007), p. 81. See also Anthony where he references a study by economist Josef Zweimuller of the University of Zurich who found that among blue collar workers that for every year of early retirement led to two months of shorter life expectancy. (Anthony, 2008, pp. 40-41). Anthony also cites a study that found a link between delaying retirement and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s.  The requirements put on the brain will require this muscle continue to work, and the mental activity may cause the brain cells to “branch wildly.” Anthony, M.  (2008), p. 61.

[13] Dhaval Dave, I. R. (2008). The Effects of Retirement on Physical and Mental Health Outcomes. National Bureau of Economic Research. 

[14] Sedlar & Miners, (1993), p. 59.

[15] Sedlar & Miners, (1993), p. 59.

[16] See Daniel Silver’s discussion on Strengthsfinders at https://www.danielsilver.com/finding-your-career-with-strengthsfinder-2-0.

[17] Nelson & Bolles, 2010, pp. 205-207.

[18] See Sedlar’s exercises in Sedlar & Miners, (1993), pp. 212-255. See Horne’s suggested exercises in Horner, P. P. (2018). The right Work Can Keep You Young! In R. C. Association, The Retirement Challenge: A Non-Financial Guide From Top Retirement Coaches. (pp. 29-44). Retirement Coaches Association, p. 39.

[19] Horner, (2018), pp. 31-42.

[20] Mitch Anthony coined the term “entremature” (rather than entrepreneur) and has an interesting section on this concept. Anthony, M. (2008), p. 76.  

[21] For interesting anecdotes of people turning their hobby into a job, see Ryan, (2018), pp. 179-211.

[22] For a review of some of these benefits, see https://createthegood.aarp.org/volunteer-ideas/health-benefits.html. A 2009 Johns Hopkins study concluded that volunteers can increase brain functioning due to increased movement and increased thinking. “Health Benefits of Volunteering.” AARP. Create the Good. See also Mayo Clinic - Benefits of Volunteering. See also https://www.americashealthrankings.org/explore/senior/measure/volunteerism_sr/state/ALL for an explanation of more of the health benefits.

[23] Anthony, M. (2008), p. 87.   

[24] Spector, A., & Lawrence, K. (2018). Your Retirement Quest. Cincinnati Book Publishers, pp. 146-147.

[25] Spector & Keith, (2018), p. 151.   

[26] Spector & Keith, (2018), p. 151.

[27] For even greater fulfillment, perhaps you include your children and grandchildren in giving to others. Spector touched on examples of where retirees involved their grandchildren in volunteer activities Spector & Keith, (2018), pp. 153-154. I guess we call this the trifecta – not only does it benefit the community, the retiree that services, but it also passes down values and a legacy to the grandchildren.

[28] Spector & Keith, (2018), pp. 151  

[29] Freedman. (2007), p. 83.

[30] Freedman. (2007), p. 83. 

[31]Zelinksi, (2015), p. 217.

[32] McFarland, H. (2018). The Volunteer Experience. In R. C. Association, The Retirement Challenge: A Non-Financial Guide From Top Retirement Experts (pp. 250-267). Retirement Coaches Association.

[33] See https://www.americashealthrankings.org/explore/senior/measure/volunteerism_sr/state/ALL.

[34] Zelinksi, (2015), p. 179.

[35] Note, again, that although you may not have a financial nest egg that allows you to contribute as much financially as you would like, your contribution of time and energy can still make a difference in both the recipients’ lives and your life. As the Arab Proverb says, “If you have much, give of your wealth. If you have little, give of your heart” as found in Your Retirement Quest. Spector & Keith, (2018), p. 145.