The Semi-Retirement Myth

Don’t buy the tales of meaningful work into your 70s. Your retirement is inevitable—and bleaker than the last generation’s.

Retirement myths.

Finding a job past a certain age is harder than reading an AARP magazine story about finding a job past a certain age.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock

The baby boomers are going to revolutionize retirement—or so many would have us think. They won’t be heading off to a life of leisure on the golf course, like their parents did. Instead, they’ll remain employed, collecting paychecks for work that is important and meaningful.

“[T]o this generation, ‘retirement’ usually means finding a different job,” Fortune opined last month. AARP’s magazine, not to be outdone, recently featured a woman who came out of retirement, quickly landing a job as the head of human resources for a charter school chain—at the age of 70. “I work a nine- or 10-hour day,” she gleefully told the magazine. That wasn’t enough for the Wall Street Journal, which upped the ante with “A Retirement Age of 100? It’s Coming.”

No, actually, it’s not.

Welcome to the latest in retirement porn. These articles, showcasing happy, fulfilled working seniors, are just another fairy tale, one that has as much of a relationship to reality as did the pre-Great Recession fantasy of the fiftysomething early retiree cashing out of the stock market and living happily ever after on a California vineyard.

According to Alicia Munnell, the director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, the average retirement age, which crept up slowly for a generation, stalled out in 2008 at 64 for men and 62 for women. In 2013 a MetLife Mature Market Institute survey found half of those born in 1946 had already completely retired and only one in five were working full-time. A more recent survey by Gallup reported a mere third of boomers aged 67 or 68 were employed. “Despite some expectations that baby boomers will defy the usual working patterns of aging Americans and stay in the workforce longer than those who came before them, the data do not appear to support that expectation,” Gallup’s report noted.

So what, then, is driving the latest in late-life life fantasies? Financial desperation.

It’s no secret the baby boomers, not to mention the Gen Xers coming up fast behind them, are not in particularly great financial shape for retirement. Conferences on the topic abound—the National Institute on Retirement Security is hosting “Shaking Up Retirement: Rethinking Financial Security for Americans” this Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Pensions for people employed outside the public sector are vanishing. The defined-contribution plans that have replaced them aren’t cutting it. According to Fidelity Investments, the average 401(k) account belonging to someone at least 55 years old is worth $165,000. (And those people are lucky. They actually have workplace retirement accounts.) The Federal Reserve says the median amount held in all retirement accounts—individual or workplace—where the head of the household is at least 35 but hasn’t yet reached the official retirement age of 65 is $59,000.

These are not sums that will take someone through an expected 20 years of retirement with ease. As a result, many retirement experts and gurus are pitching people on the idea that they could and should stay in the workforce as long as they can.  

It’s good advice. People seem to want to take it. Almost half of the baby boomers surveyed by Gallup in 2014 said they planned to work past the age of 65, with a full 10 percent claiming they would “never” cease paid employment.

So what goes wrong?  

As Teresa Ghilarducci, an economist at the New School and the author of When I’m 64: The Plot Against Pensions and the Plan to Save Them, told me, “Working longer is a retirement plan like winning the lottery or dying earlier is a retirement plan. Being able to work longer is not a plan. It’s a hope.”

So what explains the discrepancy between boomer retirement expectations and reality? Most likely, a combination of health issues and age discrimination.

Exhortations by well-intentioned financial advisers to “stay healthy” or “take care of your health” are unlikely to help a sixtysomething with a bad knee or hip and a job in, say,  retail or delivering packages for FedEx. In Social Security Works!, authors Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson point out that between 20 percent and 30 percent of workers in their 60s suffer from what they describe as “work limiting health conditions.” Others find their work options limited not by their own physical woes, but by the need to take care of less-than-healthy spouses, parents, or other relatives.

Then there is age discrimination. It takes people older than 55 longer to find a job than it does their younger peers, and they are also more likely to face long-term unemployment should they lose their position. Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in 2009, age discrimination now has to be the primary reason someone was either fired from or never hired for a job for that person to have legal recourse. It’s an all-but-impossible standard to meet, even as tales of suspected age discrimination are legion.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently filed a lawsuit against Seasons 52, the upscale Darden Restaurants grill and wine bar chain, claiming it told middle-aged job seekers it was “not looking for old white guys” to serve diners its Grilled Garlic Pesto Chicken flatbread and Wood-Roasted Pork Tenderloin. But most older job applicants don’t experience anything so blatant. Often it’s easier to discourage them. Last year the New Republic flagged ServiceNow, a Silicon Valley IT company, for proclaiming on the its job listings website, “We want people who have their best work ahead of them, not behind them.” (The language has since been removed.) Other times, an employee will send out an informal email blast about a job opening, and ask contacts if they know of anyone “young” or “energetic” for the position.

But the rah-rah reject-retirement crowd rarely acknowledges these issues. Instead, leaving the workforce is viewed as choice, and not a particularly good one. If people can’t find work, they must be doing something wrong. They’re slackers—or a “loser,” as one commenter wrote on a recent Los Angeles Times article about an unemployed former executive for Samsung, now in his 60s and on the financial ropes, unable to get a job even at Home Depot.

There are better and more effective ways to financially protect the unemployed elderly than shaming them. Congress could pass legislation strengthening age discrimination laws, not to mention heeding the call by senators like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown to increase Social Security checks. A poll conducted last year found 79 percent of Americans agreed Social Security benefits should be increased, with the bill paid by the wealthy.

If you’re one of us four out of five, let your member of Congress know how you feel. Meanwhile, enough with headlines like “Working in Retirement Is the New Norm” and “8 Great Part Time Jobs for Retirees.”

Baby boomers are going to retire. It’s time we admitted it.