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Working Longer for Much More Than a Paycheck

Two studies find older workers want to combine purpose and paychecks


Work is more than what people do to make ends meet. For many, work is central to their identity and sense of self. Even when people approach traditional retirement age with sufficient resources to retire, they still seek the non-monetary rewards of work — passion and purpose.

A growing body of research supports this trend and sheds new insights on why people choose to continue to work.

Retired and Still Working

In May, Bankers Life Center for a Secure Retirement reported ongoing evolutions in the definition of retirement. Its report, New Expectations, New Rewards: Work in Retirement for Middle-Income Boomers  (those with incomes of $25,000 to $100,000 and less than $1 million in assets), shows that more than a quarter of respondents who say they are retired (28 percent) are still working or have worked for pay in retirement, most in flexible work arrangements.

Their findings reinforce those of other groups, including Encore.org’s 2014 research, showing that economic necessity is less of a driver than might be expected for those returning to work after retiring: In the Bankers Life survey, nearly six in ten of these “retirees” choose to work for non-financial reasons, including a desire for intellectual challenge, to remain physically active and to fulfill a sense of purpose.

Nearly two-thirds of those who changed careers agreed with the statement, “I feel like I can finally carry out my passion in my new career.”

For the vast majority of the middle-income retirees (72 percent), hourly wages are lower than they were before they retired (likely because most work part-time or are self-employed), but satisfaction is high: Three in four respondents report that they are as satisfied or more satisfied in their new jobs, and one in three say they’re much more satisfied now.

What Spurred Career Changes After 45

Another recent study, New Careers for Older Workers,  from the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), took a look at a similar population group and its relationship to work. It reviewed the experiences of 406 people who tried to change careers after 45. (AIER defines a career change, or occupational change, as a change in jobs that involves new tasks with the same or a different employer in the same or a different field.)

The findings of the AIER survey offer important insights. They estimate that anywhere from 16 to 29 million people have attempted a career change after 45. Refuting common beliefs, more than eight in ten (82 percent) of career switchers were successful in their job searches.

Interestingly, many who made a successful job change were not motivated by extrinsic market forces. They weren’t laid off or offered another job. More often, they quit their jobs voluntarily (23 percent) or retired and decided to seek work again (14 percent).

These varied motivations for entering the job market were likely responsible for a number of striking findings.

The AIER report said: “The overwhelming majority (90 percent) of successful career-changers say the move was a success and report being happy or very happy (87 percent) after the career change. In addition, the majority feel that their stress levels declined, that it did not take too long to find the job, and that they are now following their passions.”

Nearly two-thirds of those who changed careers (59 percent) agreed with the statement, “I feel like I can finally carry out my passion in my new career.” And 72 percent said: “Emotionally, I feel like a new person since switching careers.”

The Encore Career Pathway

The pathways identified in the Bankers Life and AIER research are among those most commonly pursued by people seeking paid encore work that delivers social impact: returning to flexible, often part-time, work after retiring from a primary career and switching to a new job after 40, 50 or later.

Although social-impact encores differ from other kinds of work, in Encore’s 2014 research, the satisfaction people report in encore roles was remarkably consistent. Once in an encore career, more than seven in ten people report that their encores are at least or more satisfying than their earlier work. This finding persists across a number of measures:

  • More than half (53 percent) find their encores less stressful than their previous work.
  • Almost half (46 percent) find their encore work more enjoyable than their prior work.
  • Nearly four in ten people in encores (38 percent) say their encore career better expresses who they are as people than their previous work.
  • Roughly two in five people (38 percent) found greater opportunities to contribute to society in their encore roles.

Looking to the Future

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins recently addressed the White House Conference on Aging and stressed the importance of work in her remarks about realizing the promise of aging: “If we leave here only addressing the problems without clearly seeing the benefits of longevity — the value of hiring an experienced worker, the solutions that an inter-generational workforce brings, the important contributions that older Americans make as grandparents, mentors, volunteers — then we have lost 10 years of opportunity.”

As all this research shows, working beyond traditional retirement age delivers much more than a paycheck. It’s an integral part of our identity, and our future.

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