By Richard Eisenberg
For many years, Georgia McManus of Waynesville, N.C., enjoyed her job writing commercial insurance policies for Stanberry Insurance and serving customers. Soon after she retired in 2018, McManus got antsy. “I didn’t want to quit working completely,” she says. “I needed something to do.”
At age 70, McManus is now loving doing similar work — but from home and part time as a contractor for a New Jersey-based insurer, The Commercial Agency, with six-hour daily workdays ending at 3 pm. McManus got the gig through WAHVE (Work at Home Vintage Experts), a New York City company that matches retirees and others over 50 who have expertise in insurance, accounting or human relations, with employers who are happy to let them work their preferred schedules remotely.
“I like being at home and I don’t have to commute in the snow,” McManus says. “It just works out real well for me.”
The 72 million members of the nation’s baby boomer generation are hitting retirement age at a time when America’s corporations and small businesses need them more than ever. With 11.3 million job openings across the country, employers yearn for workers who know what they are doing. As a result, companies and small businesses are trying to lure people in their 60s off pickleball courts and golf courses.
Many older Americans are also finding that work can be part of a healthy retirement. The generation that first entered the workforce in 1962 has typically seemed reluctant to leave it. Lately, some of its members are finding ways to have working retirements. They are being driven by the idea that working longer and easing into retirement can help people live longer and healthier lives .
Some simply need, or appreciate, the extra income. If Tom Brady can keep playing football, how hard could Zoom meetings really be? The Best New Idea in Retirement might just be to work a little more .
“What I’m seeing is people who are just blowing past this idea of traditional retirement,” says John Tarnoff, a Los Angeles-based career transition coach and co-host of “ The Second Act Show ” livecast. “The word ‘retirement’ doesn’t quite describe this lifestyle, so many people are evolving into” it.
Growing numbers of employers are finding that letting people like McManus work part time in retirement is working out well for their businesses, too.
“They’re starting to see how some of these age-inclusive strategies are going to get them back on their feet [after a rocky time for business during the pandemic],” says University of Iowa College of Public Health professor Brian Kaskie, who also directs the Age-Inclusive Management Strategies program in Colorado.
Employing people to work part time in retirement helps address what Janine Vanderburg calls “the talent paradox.” She runs Changing the Narrative, a Denver-based campaign to change the way people think, talk and act about aging and ageism.
“We have all the ‘For Hire’ signs and we have all the [prospective] older workers,” says Vanderburg. She’s starting to see an increase in the number of employers who, she says, “are like, ‘Of course, older workers!’”
Kerry Hannon, author of the new book, “In Control at 50+,” says: “For older workers, being able to work at home is huge and remote work being so accepted now opens the door to so many more opportunities for them.”
What’s happening and why
Last year, Susan Weinstock noticed a big change in her job when she worked as AARP’s vice president of financial resilience programming. Companies started signing up for the AARP Employer Pledge Program , affirming the value of experienced workers. The pledges trickled in at first and then quickly grew into a flood, with over 1,000 employers signing up.
Both AARP and the nonprofit Age-Friendly Institute (which elevates and accelerates age-friendly programs and services) have seen a dramatic rise in the number of employers coming to them to receive “age-friendly” employer designations. “In 2022, it hasn’t slowed down,” notes Weinstock.
One reason the employers like signing the pledge, Weinstock says, “is then we can post [their] jobs on our job board.” (She recently left AARP to become CEO of the Consumer Federation of America.)
Says David Casey, chief diversity officer at giant pharmacy chain CVS Health (NYS:CVS) , one of AARP’s Age-Friendly Employers: “Mature workers contribute a wealth of unique experiences, skills and perspectives to our workforce that can help us better serve our customers and develop our teams.”
Organizations signing the AARP pledge are asked — but not required — to take two actions in two years to demonstrate their commitment to a multi-generational workforce and age diversity. Nearly 120 employers are now Certified Age-Friendly Employers , a designation from the Age-Friendly Institute to assist job seekers who are 50 or older. Organizations who successfully complete the certification evaluation are then listed on the RetirementJobs.com site.
“In the last two or three years, there’s been a sharp trajectory,” says Tim Driver, founder of the Age-Friendly Institute and CEO of RetirementJobs.com. Based on the current flow of applicants and the pipeline, Driver says, “this program will double or even triple this year.”
Sharon Emek, CEO and founder of WAHVE, says she’s overwhelmed with demand from employers looking to hire her older workers. Right now, WAHVE is trying to fill almost 300 contract positions for mostly long-term assignments.
“Every year we grow by 20%,” Emek says. And Lisa Jensen, career services program manager at Workforce Boulder County, a government agency for job seekers, says: “I’m absolutely finding people who want to work in their later years. They either aren’t ready to retire financially or not ready professionally.”
The tight job market is clearly a key reason more employers want to be seen as age-friendly. And it’s why they’re hiring people to work in retirement and letting retiring employees switch from full-time jobs to part-time ones. Often, they’re finding there aren’t enough younger people to get the work done.
It’s a demographic trend that will continue for decades, says Bradley Schurman, author of “The Super Age.” He believes boomers may be the answer to employers’ current quest to fill open positions. “We’ve had decreasing birth rates for some time. So, Gen Z is smaller than the millennial generation. And following that, Gen Alpha’s even smaller,” says Schurman. “ We can’t say ‘This will turn around in five or 10 years.’ This is actually going to get a lot worse.”
Paul Rupert, whose Rupert Organizational Design firm helps organizations build flexible work policies and initiatives, says demographics are transforming employers’ attitudes toward aging workers. “The ‘buy ‘em, use ‘em for 30 years and toss ‘em model is no longer organizationally feasible,” says Rupert, who also runs the Respectful Exits phased retirement social advocacy campaign.
“We’ve made the switch from an industrial to an information-based economy, which means you’ve got a whole class of people who are holding vital knowledge,” notes Rupert. “And so, the idea of people walking out the door can cripple a company.”
In the pandemic, many employees in their 60s (like me) have quit their full-time positions and instead chosen what’s known as either semi-retirement or unretirement — working part-time in retirement, often from home and often at jobs giving them a sense of purpose as well as income.
I had been managing editor of the PBS site for people 50+, Next Avenue , and editor of its Money & Policy and Work & Purpose channels, but left that job in January 2022 to begin my new stage of life. Now, I’m writing The View From Retirement biweekly column for MarketWatch , freelancing for Next Avenue and other media outlets and running the digital media strategies program for the 2022 NYU Summer Publishing Institute. I’m also continuing to co-host the Friends Talk Money podcast , which has a new episode about working in retirement.
But I’m also giving myself plenty of downtime to enjoy retirement — traveling, volunteering, reading and watching gads of streaming TV shows and films.
Making part-time work viable for older employees in retirement is becoming essential for employers like Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Colorado in Denver. Most people who retire from JFS of Colorado switch to part-time employment there.
Says Kristine Burrows, its director of aging care and connections and a “reframing aging” trainer: “That older cohort of workers is bringing a lot of creative energy and a lot of skill and a lot of expertise to the table. And so, it makes sense to keep that expertise as long as we can.”
At Colorado’s arc Thrift Stores, more than 10% of the 1,600 employees are 65 or older. That’s intentional, says the nonprofit’s CEO Lloyd Lewis, who says he has “a real bias toward experience.” Older workers, Lewis says, “value hard work. They show up on time. They help increase morale across the company.”
Lewis also thinks employees tend to get better with age. “I’m in my 17th year [at arc Thrift Stores]. I am much better at what I do in year 17 than I was when I started,” he notes.
Like many advocates for older workers, Lewis believes popular assumptions about them — they’re unproductive, they’re technophobes — are myths. “Older workers, on average, are probably more productive because of their experience,” he says. “They’re very committed.”
As for not being digitally savvy, gerontologist Tracey Gendron writes in her new book “Ageism Unmasked” that “countless surveys show that most older people use the internet and are more digitally connected than ever before.” Notes Hannon: “We’re not digital natives, but we’re pretty close.”
One factor behind the growth in letting people work part time in retirement: The Great Resignation, which some labor market analysts dub “The Great Rethink” or “The Great Reshuffle.”
Loads of older workers have been re-evaluating how they want to work, how much they want to work and where they want to work.
Others who are younger say they expect to follow suit, according to a January 2022 Harris Poll for Express Employment Professionals . In that survey, most employees said they’d be interested in a semi-retirement, either through a flexible work schedule, transitioning to a consulting role or working reduced hours with reduced benefits. (Just one in five of their employers offers a semi-retirement option, however.)
Center for Retirement Research at Boston College researchers estimate that 300,000 more of the nation’s 15 million retirees aged 50 to 70 could return to the workforce than typically would during an economic recovery.
“We expect to see some more workers coming back than we normally would see,” says Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, a Boston College professor and research fellow at the Center.
Popular programs for retirees who want to work
The quest for flexible work and semi-retirement explains why two benefits programs at Principal Financial Group have become so popular of late with employees of the financial services company based in Des Moines, Iowa.
One is a phased retirement program known as the “easy ramp into retirement,” which lets Principal employees aged 57 and older with a minimum of 10 years of service glide from full-time jobs to part-time work. The other is a “boomerang” program that lets Principal retirees come back to work part-time for the company after at least six months of retirement. Principal retirees who agree to work 20 or more hours a week remain eligible for its health and retirement benefits.
“We see the retiree segment of our population as an incredibly important part of our overall talent strategy, especially now when you look at the talent dynamics that are happening in the marketplace,” says Jon Couture, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Principal Financial Group (NAS:PFG) .
Couture notes that his human resources team and managers are holding more conversations with older employees interested in retiring and asking them “What are you trying to achieve in this next phase of your life? Could you imagine a different work schedule that allows you to do all the things you want to do — have way more time and flexibility, but not completely decouple from work?”
Couture recently had that conversation with a Principal executive who’d announced plans to retire. “He definitely doesn’t want to carry the same type of workload that he had in the past,” says Couture.
They’re working out an arrangement so the soon-to-be retired employee will get to do the work he wants to do without having to do a lot of the work he doesn’t want to do. “I’m confident we’re going to be able to work something out that makes sense for him and makes sense for us,” says Couture.
Lewis recently had a similar talk with an arc Thrift Stores employee who just turned 65 and had worked there 16 years. “I was able to make a flexible adjustment in his schedule going from five days a week to three and I’ve told him he can take as much time off as he’d like,” Lewis says.
Although only 8% of U.S. employers offer formal phased retirement programs open to all employees who meet specified criteria, according to SHRM (the Society for Human Resource Management), that’s up from 6% in 2019. SAP North America, and Owens Corning are adding or considering formal phased retirement programs, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
Far more common, and also growing, are informal phased retirement programs available on an ad hoc basis, at the discretion of the employer. Employees must ask for them. SHRM says 23% of U.S. employers now offer informal phased retirement programs, up from 16% in 2016.
Companies such as pharmaceutical manufacturers AbbVie (NYS:ABBV) and Abbott Laboratories (NYS:ABT) , office furniture maker Herman Miller, building and construction-materials firm Owens Corning (NYS:OC) and the Scripps Health system have offered phased retirement for years.
Microsoft’s (NAS:MSFT) chief human resource officer Kathleen Hogan says benefits remain largely the same for her company’s employees who downshift from full time to part time.
Why do employers prefer ad hoc phased retirement programs to broad-based formal ones? Partly, to avoid potential complexities with benefits rules. Also, says Boston College’s Sanzenbacher: “My guess would be that there is a fear of getting the wrong kind of people to stay” with a program available to all employees of a certain age and tenure.
He notes that some employees grabbing a formal phased retirement benefit might do so because they need the money, not because they want to continue working. Adds Driver: “We have to be frank and say that there are some older adults whose performance does decline.”
The hot job market is leading some retirees to use their leverage and negotiate re-entering the workforce on their own terms.
Peter (he prefers not to reveal his last name), retired from his Seattle engineering job at 60 in 2019, but has since decided to look for contract work. A hiring manager at one company he spoke with asked him to work there full-time, but when Peter said he preferred a contract position, he was told: “We’re not really looking at doing that right now.” Peter’s response: “OK, well get back to me when you are.’”
His view of this experience: “I don’t want to sound arrogant, and I appreciate the position that I’m in — that I can have a choice and I can choose to spend more time doing things I want versus working full time.”
AARP’s Weinstock says she’s hearing about employers eager to work with older job applicants and figure out what works. Determining how to let older employees switch to part-time work with fewer responsibilities in retirement means an extra lift for managers already dealing with hybrid work and pandemic rules.
“If you have two part-time employees instead of one full-time employee, you’re doing a little bit more work on the management side of the street,” says Burrows at JFS of Colorado. “I won’t sugarcoat it; it’s challenging to make sure that we can get those puzzle pieces put together.”
Finding retirees who want to work part time can also necessitate revising job postings to attract them, notes the University of Iowa’s Kaskie, who’s leading a team to help Colorado employers hire and keep older workers.
One landscaper told Kaskie that older workers were his best workers and he needed more of them. Kaskie told him to say explicitly that the job didn’t require heavy lifting and would let them get at least 5,000 steps a day. “That’s going to get a guy like me going,” Kaskie noted.
Organizations can do much more for “late career rejuvenation,” giving people “a change of pace and a chance to be more fulfilled,” says “What Retirees Want” co-author Robert Morison. “That’s the missing piece in most organizations — encouraging the retiree or the pre-retiree to stay around longer.”
American Transmission Company (ATC), in Waukesha, Wisc., has been doing just that since 2019, with its annual one-day program called The ATC Retiree Experience. The company first targeted employees 60 and older, plus their spouses, and invited ATC executives to attend. After the first program’s success, ATC broadened the event to employees 55+; it plans to invite all 555 workers in 2023.
Lori Steckert Casetta, ATC’s manager of total rewards, said the company launched the program after hearing employees say they weren’t sure how to transition to retirement.
“The more we heard that, we thought: ‘Let’s make that transition into their next phase of life as positive of an experience as them entering our organization,” she says.
The company’s HR team uses the event to explain work options for its retirees including its fixed-term assignments that come with insurance and 401(k) benefits. Says Casetta: “If there’s a way we can encourage employees to stay on in some fashion, we absolutely talk about that.”