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Working in Retirement: Wishful Thinking?

Many expect to work part-time but few are preparing for it, a survey says

By Richard Eisenberg

Plenty has been said about American workers in their 50s and 60s not saving enough for retirement. But a new survey from Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies (TCRS) shows that many boomers and Gen Xers are ignoring another type of retirement planning that’s nearly as important: preparing to work part-time in retirement.

Working in Retirement
Credit: Adobe Stock

The 18 annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Workers, out today, found that 56 percent of workers plan to continue working at least part-time in retirement — a figure that’s been creeping up in Transamerica’s annual surveys. But working in retirement may be wishful thinking, the survey revealed, given how few people are taking steps so they’ll be able to do it. And quite a few workers seem to be betting their employers will let them stay on part-time, which is anything but a certainty given current employment practices.

3 Reasons Working in Retirement May Not Pan Out

“Working in retirement can be within reach. But if workers aren’t proactive about making sure they have their skills up to date, understanding the employment marketplace and safeguarding their health, it becomes wishful thinking,” said TCRS President Catherine Collinson.

Finding work in your 50s and 60s is much harder than when you’re in your 20s or 30s. The average duration of unemployment for job seekers age 55 to 64 is now about 44 weeks and for those 65+ it’s roughly 35 weeks, according to AARP. By contrast, unemployment lasts just 20 weeks, on average, for people in their early 20s. What's more, 37 percent of the long-term unemployed — those looking for work for 27 weeks or more — are 55 and older.

And, as experts warned at Canon USA's The Future of Work panel in New York City yesterday, some of today’s jobs will disappear in coming years due to automation. “Extremely repetitive, routine jobs will be massively disrupted,” said Aaron Dignan, founder of The Ready, a business management consultant. The bright spot, said Greg Ryan, vice president at Canon Information and Imaging Solutions, is that "creative jobs will be less prone to be impacted by AI [artificial intelligence] in terms of automation."

Here, with apologies to Family Feud, are a few statistics showing what the survey says … and the reality:

SURVEY SAYS ... 72 percent of workers say their current employer is supportive of its employees working past 65.

Reality check: “My read is that this falls into the realm of wishful thinking,” said Collinson. “Just look at the labor force participation rate and you see a very steep decline after age 65.”

SURVEY SAYS ... 47 percent of workers envision a phased transition into retirement, where they’d work fewer hours than they do now, possibly doing less demanding work.

Reality check: “Employment business practices haven’t caught up with these expectations,” said Collinson. As my colleague Kerry Hannon wrote, a Society for Human Resource Management study reported that just 5 percent of employers in its membership base offer a formal phased retirement program. And a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report for the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging said: “formal phased retirement programs are relatively uncommon.”

Workers seem to know it, too. Only 37 percent told Transamerica their employers offer flexible work-related programs such as accommodating flexible work schedules and arrangements, enabling employees to reduce work hours and shift from full-time to part-time and/or enabling employees to take positions that are less stressful or demanding.

SURVEY SAYS ... 54 percent of workers (and 68 percent of boomers) think they will stay with their current employer when they are working past age 65 or transitioning into retirement.

Reality check: “This falls into the category of wishful thinking,” said Collinson. “So few employers offer the ability to shift into part-time work in retirement. To work part-time, you may have to go to a different employer or go freelance or start your own business."

SURVEY SAYS... 60 percent of workers say if they shift from full- to part-time work at their current employer, they expect to receive the same level of employee benefits.

Reality check: “We know for a fact that employers often exclude part-time workers from certain benefits packages,” said Collinson. For example, she noted, “fewer than half of employers with retirement plans offer them to part-time workers.”

SURVEY SAYS ... When workers were asked what steps they are taking to help ensure they can continue working, 62 percent said “staying healthy,” 56 percent said “performing well at their current job” and 46 percent said “keeping their job skills up to date."

Reality check: If you’re not healthy, performing well at your current job and keeping your job skills up to date, you’re making it harder to qualify for a part-time job in retirement.

Collinson would like to see all those percentages closer to 100 percent.  “Life offers no guarantees, and until employers embrace older workers, people need to be as proactive as possible” to be employable in retirement, she said. “Opportunities for people with out-of-date skills are far fewer compared to people with current job skills. That’s a reality.”

Stunningly, only 4 percent of boomers said they are going back to school and learning new skills. “With so many online resources these days, there are wonderful opportunities to go to school and learn skills. It doesn’t mean you need to get a degree,” said Collinson.


SURVEY SAYS ... Only 14 percent of boomers and 18 percent of Gen Xers are networking and meeting new people.

Reality check: “Those percentages are extremely frustrating. They’re a missed opportunity,” said Collinson. “Networking can make all the difference in the world in helping people achieve their vision of working in retirement.” Most people getting jobs these days do so through referrals, not by responding to job ads.

SURVEY SAYS ... Only 25 percent of workers have identified employment opportunities as being a very important criterion for deciding where they want to live in retirement.

Reality check: Collinson laughed (and not in a good way) about how low that figure is. “The fact that people are thinking of working in retirement but haven’t considered employment opportunities when planning where to live is a big disconnect,” she said. “Especially for boomers, who are nearest to retirement, it’s very dangerous to assume there will be employment opportunities where you think you want to live.”

How to Get Realistic About Working in Retirement

All told, workers in their 50s and 60s need to start becoming more realistic about their prospects for working in retirement the way they envision.

“You really need to do your homework and find out if you’ll be eligible for benefits” at the employer where you hope to work in retirement, whether that’s your current one or another, Collinson said.

She’s talking about whether you’d be able to contribute to a 401(k) as a part-timer and whether you’d get health benefits, especially before you hit Medicare eligibility at the age of 65. “With so much going on with health benefits these days, it’s absolutely imperative to research those before making any decisions about switching from full-time to part-time,” noted Collinson.

To increase the chances of working part-time in retirement where you now work, when nearing the date of quitting full-time, you might talk with your boss about helping out as a paid, part-time mentor.

“There’s an incredible opportunity to take on responsibilities and coach younger staff,” Bill Bouchey, principal and director of design for interiors at the design, architecture, engineering and planning firm HOK, said at The Future of Work panel.

Collinson also urges boomers and Gen Xers to research employment opportunities in the areas where they’ll want to retire.

Some, but not all, surveys of the best places to retire or age successfully include local data on jobs and the employment rate for people in their 60s. Two good ones: The Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging’s 2017 Best Cities for Successful Aging, which I wrote about in March, and the U.S. News Best Places to Retire in the United States, which I wrote about in October.

Collinson also suggested searching for employment opportunities by the geographic locations that interest you on job posting sites like and

Her bottom line for workers who want to work part-time in retirement: “It’s important to have a plan, but also to be mindful that things can happen along the way. You should have a Plan B and maybe even a Plan C. That way, if one pathway doesn’t work out, you’ll have others to follow.”

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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