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Interview: Boomers Reinvent Retirement

 

Erik Kojola


Huge numbers of baby boomers continue to reach retirement age. But instead of simply giving up paid work, boomers forge new paths for themselves. They delay retirement, move in and out of retirement and start second careers.

Why?

Erik Kojola and Phyllis Moen from the University of Minnesota interviewed working and retired U.S. boomers in search of an answer. They published their findings online in the Journal of Aging Studies on Jan. 26, 2016.

Unlike earlier retirees, boomers see retirement as an opportunity for new beginnings. They are eager to take on new challenges, explore new options and to follow long-delayed dreams.

In the current climate, they are hampered by outmoded workplace practices, lack of retirement savings and personal and family health concerns.

This study sheds light on the challenges facing boomers at the individual level, as they try to ground their hopes and dreams for later life.

To learn more, AHB caught up with Erik Kojola, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, U.S.A.

Ruth Dempsey: The study focuses on white-collar workers living in the Minnesota metropolitan area. Can you describe them for me?

Erik Kojola: The participants ranged in age from their early 50s to late 60s. Some were still working full time. Others had retired from professional and white-collar jobs in large companies, state agencies and small nonprofit organizations. Some were fully retired, others partially retired. Some retirees had moved on to encore jobs.

They were all grappling with how to navigate work, family, health and finances.

RD: These boomers say the language of retirement no longer resonates. How so?

EK: Many of the people we spoke with do not see a sharp line between work and retirement. The line is more fluid because they plan to phase out of their careers, take on part-time and contract work or, possibly, leave retirement and return to paid work.

Many boomers reject the concept of retirement as a period of leisure and withdrawal. Several described how their parents' generation retired and aged. They did not want to follow in their footsteps.

They talked about volunteering and spending time with family. Many looked forward to learning new skills and launching new projects. As one participant put it, "It is not a time to die, it is a time to bloom."

RD: Control is a major issue for many . . .

EK: That's right. People felt strongly about having control of their time and of their lives. This desire extended beyond work to leisure, volunteering and family life.

Indeed, many said working conditions trumped the decision to work or not to work. For example, an individual might want to leave one job with rigid hours and welcome another with flexible hours.

RD: When do they plan to retire?

EK: Among our participants, we found that there was a wide range in actual and expected retirement ages.

Some were hoping to retire in their late 50s or early 60s so they could pursue special interests and passions. Others planned to work into their 70s because they enjoy the sense of meaning they derive from their career.

Still others must continue working because they need the money.

Many people do not have a clear and set retirement plan.

Expectations for retirement varied greatly across social class and depending on people's financial situation.

RD: Sandra, a 50-year-old human resource manager anticipates working into her 70s.

EK: Sandra is indicative of boomers who feel a real sense of insecurity. With little savings, they can't imagine retiring anytime soon because they need the income. Women with disrupted career paths, often due to caring for children, and women who divorced later in life are hardest hit.

We also found that individuals laid-off when their company downsized struggled to find new work.

RD: Many are carrying debt . . .

EK: Yes. The recession of 2008 had a tremendous impact on several of the participants in our study. People lost savings, the price of homes plummeted. And ballooning debt – often to fund children's education – created stress and financial uncertainty.

RD: Some workers want to cut back on hours to reduce stress. How flexible are employers?

EK: For the most part, employers are struggling to catch-up with the changing expectations of boomers. Few options are available to allow workers to meet their needs, while still offering employers valuable knowledge and skills.

However, we have found some organizations crafting new policies. For example, several healthcare organizations in Minnesota allow employees to scale back to part-time work while retaining full health insurance and other benefits.

RD: Finally, some people are concerned retiring will make them look unproductive or lazy. Why is that?

EK: Active notions of retirement tend to push a "busy ethic" and the idea that people must be active in ways that society deems productive.

But the image of the productive older person limits the possible values of growing older and overlooks people who do not have the resources or physical ability to work or volunteer.

Why shouldn't people spend their time socializing with friends, reading the newspaper and walking their dogs?

RD: Meanwhile, governments are hiking up the retirement age and shifting responsibility for aging to the individual.

EK: In many ways the need to work longer – whether full or part time – is a reflection of the shrinking social safety net and the decline of defined benefit pensions.

Some retire to take care of elderly parents or grandchildren because of the lack of affordable care, and because other family members are working long hours or multiple jobs.

However, we did find people who choose to work longer or take up encore careers because they enjoy what they do. For these individuals, work provided structure and a sense of meaning.

Also, some did not want to be held to a set date for retirement.

RD: Boomers are set to leave the workforce for at least another 15 years. How do you see things evolving?

EK: A couple of points:

  • Retirement and career paths will not go back to being neat, linear and ordered. These days are largely over. So we need government policies and employment practices that provide workers with more job flexibility and more pathways to retirement.
  • Also tackling inequalities is important. Remaining in the workforce out of financial necessity and being compelled to take part-time and contingent jobs because other options are not available can be exploitative and disruptive. Workers need to be able to shape how they arrange work.
  • And we need forward-thinking policies that ensure equitable access to phased retirement for people of all classes, races, gender and ability. Also equitable access to encore jobs is essential.
  • Finally, people are not going to take new pathways unless they feel secure. The key is to provide a safety net that includes income, housing and healthcare.