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The Secret to Retiree Happiness: Part-Time Work

Some work in retirement is better than none, a study suggests

By Matthew Heimer | MarketWatch | August 22, 2014

(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.com)

What’s the secret to enjoying your retirement years? Counterintuitively enough, it might be having a rewarding, flexible job.

A recent study published in the IZA Journal of European Labor Studies suggests that people who keep working after age 65 tend to be much happier than their peers who are retired — as long as they’re working by choice and not because they’re broke.

Sociologists have long known that in the industrialized world, most people's happiness (as self-reported in surveys that ask questions about well-being) bottoms out around age 40 and then rises steadily through the retirement years. In fact, people over 65 tend to rate their happiness higher than they did in their youth.
 
Common sense might suggest that older people are happier because they aren’t working as much. But the new study, by Brookings Institute fellow Carol Graham and University of Maryland public-policy scholar Milena Nikolova, indicates that those who are working are generally more satisfied than those who aren’t.

Happier and Healthier, Too
 
The study, which relied on U.S. and European survey results, also indicates that these “late-life” workers are more satisfied with their health than retirees. But of course, if these folks weren’t in good health, they’d be much less likely to be working.

More broadly, as Graham notes in an essay summarizing the study, people are more likely to stay on the job after 65 if they have jobs that they like, especially if they have the flexibility to reduce their hours as they choose.

(MORE: 10 Great Sites to Find Part-Time Work)
 
As for those less happy folks between ages 40 and 65, they also derive a lot of satisfaction from their jobs and the authors suggest that their lower overall happiness scores have more to do with the weight of other responsibilities, like child-rearing (and, perhaps, taking care of less active, less healthy older parents).

If Retirees Could Help Stressed MidLife Workers
 
The authors’ thought experiment: If we could shift some job responsibilities from beleaguered midlife workers to eager, healthy retirement-aged folks, would everybody be that much happier?

“We can imagine a future where over-burdened, middle-aged workers with children have more flexibility to work part-time, with late-life workers taking up some of the slack,” writes Graham.
 
The practical obstacles to implementing that idea are enormous, of course. (Do you pay the midlife worker less if he works less? And if so, won’t he wind up scrambling unhappily to pay the bills?)

But it’s still an intriguing thought, especially for a mid-career person who’s gratefully approaching the weekend.
 
 
Matthew Heimer covers retirement for MarketWatch and edits the Encore blog. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewHeimer.