March 5, 2023 • Third Third Journal
As the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, you may have seen headlines about retirement. They often read like these:
“Amid the pandemic, a rising share of older U.S. adults are now retired,” Pew Research Center, 11/4/2021.
“Why millions of older Americans are retiring early in the wake of the pandemic,” PBS Newshour, 2/23/2022.
“The COVID Retirement Boom,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 10/15/2021.
During the first 18 months of the pandemic, over four million Americans retired, that’s two million more than were expected to do so. Many who stopped working because of COVID-19 simply didn’t return to work for a variety of reasons. They thought of themselves as retired.
“Retirees” Returning to Work
But the rush to retirement seems to be changing according to more recent data. Consider these headlines:
“Against expectations, COVID-19 retirees are returning to work,” The Economist, 9/15/2022.
“Millions retired early during the pandemic. Many are now returning to work, new data shows.” The Washington Post, 5/6/2022.
WaPo writer Abha Bhattarai reports, “An estimated 1.5 million retirees have reentered the U.S. labor market over the past year, according to an analysis of Labor Department data by Nick Bunker, an economist at Indeed. That means the economy has made up most of the extra losses of retirees since February 2020, a Washington Post analysis shows.” If COVID-19 accelerated the rate of retirement for a season, it seems that this acceleration has now been reversed.
Older Adults Choosing to Keep on Working
In fact, a wide variety of reliable sources are reporting that more and more Americans are choosing to work beyond what we consider to be the typical retirement age. For example:
“More in U.S. Retiring, or Planning to Retire, Later”
By Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup News, 11/22/2022,
“Who’s Working More? People Age 65 and Older”
“They are the fastest-growing part of the labor force, data shows”
By Kenneth Terrell, AARP, 11/22/2019.
“64% of Americans Think They’ll Work After Retirement”
By Jacqueline De Marco, Magnify Money, 11/17/2020.
“Number of people 75 and older in the labor force is expected to grow 96.5 percent by 2030”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, TED: The Economics Daily, 11/4/2021
Even if people retire that doesn’t mean they stop working altogether. An American Advisors Group survey revealed that almost half of older adults said they “plan on working part-time or picking up a side job during their retirement years.” This statistic does not include the work that many more will do without compensation (volunteering, caring for an aging parent or spouse, etc.).
“Retirement as We Know It”
All of this data encouraged Sophia Epstein, when writing for BBC: Worklife, to ask: “Is this the end of retirement as we know it?” Her article shows that changing views of retirement are common, not just in the U.S., but in the U.K. as well.
Of course, “retirement as we know it” is a fairly recent phenomenon. For most of human history, people worked about as long as they lived. The notion of spending our latter years not working was nurtured in Germany in the late 1800s. It began to gain traction in the U.S. in the twentieth century. The Social Security Act, for example, was passed in 1935. It established the standard retirement age at 65 years, when life expectancy was about 62 years (59.9 for men, 63.9 for women). Pensions and similar programs to support retired people flourished in the second half of the 20th century. These became necessary as people began to live longer and longer, a result mainly of better social conditions and medical care. It was during this time when “retirement as we know it” became popular, assuming that full-time workers would stop working in their mid-60s and spend most of their time after that in pleasurable activities. (See “The History of Retirement,” by Michael McLeod, The Fiduciary Group, 2/26/2021; and “The History of Retirement from Early Man to AARP,” by Mary-Lou Weisman, New York Times, 3/21/1999.)
My Grandparents as Examples
My family embodied this retirement narrative, though with interesting variations. My father’s parents, both of whom worked outside of the home for many years, retired when they were in their sixties. They moved from the snowy northeast to sunny California, where they spent over 25 years playing golf and games, reading books, hanging out with friends, cooking, gardening, and taking classes at the local community college. My mother’s parents embodied a different story. My grandmother had not worked for compensation since she was a young woman, but was extremely busy with many volunteer activities, including 16 years on the local school board. She continued her non-profit work well into her 70s. Her husband, my mother’s father, retired from full-time paid work at 67 but continued to work as a civil engineer, doing pro bono work for his church and many other charitable organizations. He used to joke that he was working as much as he ever did, only without being paid. But, indeed, he was “paid” in gratitude and meaning.
Today, millions of people are “doing retirement” in the way of my father’s parents, filling their lives mainly with enjoyable but relatively non-productive activities. Millions of others are living as my mother’s parents did, working hard in a variety of settings but not being paid for their efforts. Yet, millions of others who are considered to be “of retirement age” are choosing to continue to pursue compensated work. Many are doing this because they need to make money to live. According to a U.S. News & World Report survey, 65% of respondents “believe they will need to work post-retirement to supplement Social Security income.”
Why You Should Work After Retirement
But many others are choosing to continue to work for reasons of personal health and fulfillment, in addition to or instead of financial necessity. A recent AARP article laid out eight reasons “Why You Should Keep Working After Retirement.” They are:
1, A cushion for your savings
2. Exercise for your brain
3. Overall health
4. A sense of community
5. A sense of purpose
6. A chance to give back
7. Good times!
8. Serving the greater good
As I read this AARP article, I was struck by the fact that most of these reasons are central to the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life course and cohorts. We’re not necessarily saying you need to do compensated work to live fully and fruitfully as you get older. But we are encouraging all third third folk to use their gifts and talents in productive ways, whether paid or unpaid.
What Will be Your Retirement Story?
As you read about the changing story of retirement, how do you respond? What will be your retirement story?
I expect that those who read this article will respond in many different ways to these questions. You may be one of those who has retired completely from full-time work. Or you may be someone who plans on working for pay for as long as you can. You may be retired but, like my grandparents on my mother’s side, busy with all kinds of volunteer work. Or you may be in a season of rest and play, especially if you’ve retired fairly recently.
As a Christian, I do not believe that the “retire and play for the rest of your life” is consistent with faithful discipleship. As a student of aging, I also believe this approach to retirement is bad for your health and happiness. God created and redeemed you for fruitfulness (Gen 1:28; John 15:1-11). This fact doesn’t expire on your 65th birthday. Remember the promise of Psalm 92: “The righteous flourish like the palm tree . . . . In old age they still produce fruit.”
I’m convinced, however, that there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” retirement narrative. Flourishing in the third third of life – living fully, fruitfully, and faithfully – will take on a wide variety of forms and features. Retirement will be central to many third third stories but not to others. That’s fine, as long as we steward well the lives, abilities, capabilities, talents, gifts, wisdom, and influence that God has entrusted to us . . . for God’s purposes and glory.
Recommended Books on Retirement from a Christian Perspective
Retirement Reformation: Finding Freedom with Faith…. a Better Way to Experience the Final (And Best) Decades of Your Life, by Bruce Bruinsma. A biblical approach to retirement, with lots of practical wisdom, stories, and great questions. Check out also the Retirement Reformation website.
An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life, by Jeff Haanen – Biblical wisdom for how to think about retirement, with lots of examples of people flourishing after they retire from their primary occupations.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.