Why are we working later in life? Do we have to — or want to?

Reed Karaim

Has the idea of 65 or so as the traditional retirement age become outdated?

That’s the question I posed to Elizabeth Fideler, a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College and the author of two books that examine why so many older Americans are continuing to work through their 60s and beyond.

The story I was working on was Interest.com’s latest Retirement Income Study, which looks at how the income of Americans 65 and over stacks up against those in the 20-year age group directly below them.

We’ve wanted to know because a rough rule of thumb is that you need at least 70% of your working income to live comfortably in retirement. While the older group continues to fall short of that mark, we found that they've been narrowing the gap.

The reason, however, turns out not to have that much to do with retirement income.

Analysts believe it’s largely because more Americans are still working as they slide past 65. In fact, the numbers are as high as they’ve been in the last 50 years.

Part of that is the harsh financial reality of today’s fund-your-own-retirement approach. As a nation, we don’t save anywhere near enough for retirement, and a lot of people keep working simply because they have no choice.

But another part of what has been happening isn’t related to finances, or at least not as much, and this is where the trend gets interesting.

elizabeth_fideler

Elizabeth Fideler

In “Women Still at Work: Professionals Over Sixty and On the Job,” which came out in 2012, and a follow-up volume “Men Still at Work: Professionals Over Sixty and On the Job,” published this year, Fideler examines how our view of work in our "golden years" is changing.

In her interviews with men and women, some of whom were still working in their 80s, she found the shift to be tied up in everything from the evolving nature of the U.S. economy to the role work plays in our lives to the challenges women face in the workforce.

Women, she found, are often working later because they either started later or interrupted their career to have children and were trying to make up for lost time.

“A lot of the women, they worked so hard to get where they are that they have no intention of stopping,” she says. “They’re peaking later in the game than men.”

In today’s 24/7 world, our jobs have increasingly become the center of our social lives as well, and many of the men, in particular, admitted they would miss being with their colleagues or even customers. These days, the office (and you can decide whether this is good or bad) is often where our friends are.

The nature of work in the information age also means that more of us have spent our working lives sitting in air-conditioned cubicles, typing away in front of computer screens. It may not be glamorous, but it ages you less than working out in the hot sun or down a coal mine.

Except for sore wrists and that kink in our necks, we’re in better shape to keep on keeping on.

Of course, it’s the baby boom that’s reaching retirement these days, and it seems the final piece of the puzzle is that we’re a group that really just doesn’t know how to let go.

Even when we leave our full-time jobs, we stay busy. Fideler found many older workers who had moved over to consulting or freelancing, allowing them to maintain a connection to their old professions while reducing their hours.

Many had also sought out second careers that paid less than what they were making but allowed them to give back to the community — a veteran lawyer who began teaching at a university, for example, or others who worked mentoring younger people in their profession.

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Some older Americans are combining income from retirement savings, which isn’t quite enough to do all they’d like, with part-time work that gives them both greater financial and personal freedom.

In fact, what we’re fashioning in our later years is a kind of “hybrid life” that combines some features of retirement — more time for ourselves, less responsibility — with continuing professional and civic engagement.

It was that last bit of information that led me to ask Fideler if the traditional idea of retirement at 65 was disappearing.

“Yes, I think it is,” she responded, after some thought. “The people doing this. They sort of have the best of both worlds.”

She was quick to add that she knows there are many Americans who can’t wait to retire, and plenty of others who are only working in their late 60s and 70s out of necessity.

But for many of us, perhaps the luckiest of us, what was once a fairly sharp line — retirement age — is likely to be a blurrier passage that allows us to keep in touch with what was a big part of our lives, after all, while also starting to explore other areas we have long dreamed about.

That beats golf.