“I thought you retired,” I say teasingly to an old friend. He turns swiftly and in a somewhat irate tone, responds, “I am retired!” The 66-year old ‘retired’ engineer goes on, “I simply do what I want, when I want.” Pausing, he says, “And, for now, I want to work a bit.”
His words sum it up. For many, today’s retirement looks a lot like work. The difference? Work in their retirement years is now on their terms, not their employer’s or even on society’s expectations.
My friend is not alone. Many recent retirees are saying they want to work at least “a bit“ in retirement. More than 2 million people retired during the first 18 months of the pandemic. They now appear to be heading back to work in what might be best described as quiet returning.
Today, data shows that the quiet return to work of onetime retirees are at higher levels than before the spring 2020 alarm bells caused many to run for the exits. At a time when “quiet quitting” — doing just enough to meet your job’s position description, but no more, has become a strategy for some to maintain their idea of quality of life, why would people who have worked decades and achieved what has been sold as nirvana, a.k.a. retirement, come back to work?
In part, the reasons for return includes what many might assume, money worries and the looming threat of inflation. Survey data from JobList do indicate that 27% of those quietly returning to work were doing so because they needed the money and another 21% feared that inflation was eroding their retirement nest egg. However, the data identify the primary reason for quietly returning to be neither money nor inflation woes.
A full 60% of retirees returning to work said they were simply “looking for something to do.” According to JobList CEO Kevin Harrington, “Many people struggle with how to spend their time after they retire and miss the social connection that work provides.”
While many scoff at the idea of work being more than a means to pay for living, work serves other critical functions that go well beyond money. We are very likely to spend more waking hours with our work colleagues than with our family and friends; consequently, work is a large part of our social world. Work structures our days, if not always to our liking. But while life may seem short, days with nothing to do or without a sense of purpose can feel endless. And, as I observed in a previous article, socially isolating during the pandemic effectively became a fire drill for retirement planning. Unfortunately, during that time many of us discovered that we were far from prepared for unstructured days, weeks, and years no matter how long our ‘to do’ list was for retirement.
The JobList data show that more than half (52%) of those quietly returning were happy to be going back to work, 42% even said they were excited to clock back in on the job. Similar to younger workers, retirees heading back to work were looking for flexibility. The vast majority (79%) wanted to work part-time. And, half of respondents might make many employers’ hearts sing — saying that work could either be in-person or remote. Moreover, as JobList’s Harrington comments, older workers quietly returning, “Could be good news for employers. Retirees are an overlooked talent pool that companies can and should engage in order to combat labor shortages.”
That said, returning to work is not without some trepidation. Nearly 30% of retirees surveyed by JobList expressed nervousness, stress, and frustration about returning to work. Getting back into the rhythm of work after being retired can be challenging. Just consider how difficult it has been for many people of all ages to go back to the workplace after the pandemic. Retirees may have multiple and compounding concerns. These might include feelings of being ‘rusty’ after being away from work for a year or many years. How do you write a resume with several decades of varied experience? How to prepare for an interview with someone your child’s or even grandchild’s age? What is appropriate compensation? And, sadly, many will confront valid fears of not being accepted by employers and younger colleagues in workplaces that may be rampant with ageism.
Some call those making this quiet return back to work ‘unretired.’ Not incorrect in phrasing, but incomplete in capturing the full impact of what those quietly returning may have on our social narrative of retirement. They are not simply unretired, they are pioneers. These older adults are inventing something that is neither our current idea of retirement or of work. They are quietly creating something else — a new life stage altogether that sees the retirement age of today as a mile marker, not an exit.
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