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Working Past 70: Americans can't seem to retire

| Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

More and more Americans are spending their golden years on the job.

Almost 19 percent of people 65 or older were working at least part time in the second quarter of 2017, according to a recent jobs report released. The age group's employment/population ratio hasn't been higher in 55 years, before American retirees won better health care and Social Security benefits starting in the late 1960s.

And the trend looks likely to continue. Millennials, prepare yourselves.

Certainly baby boomers are increasingly ignoring the traditional retirement age of 65. Last quarter, 32 percent of Americans 65 to 69 were employed. Even past age 70, a growing number of seniors are declining to, or unable to, retire. Last quarter, 19 percent of 70- to 74-year-olds were working, up from 11 percent in 1994.

Older Americans are working more even as those younger than 65 are working less, a trend that the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to continue. By 2024, 36 percent of 65- to 69-year-olds will be active participants in the labor market, the BLS says. That's up from just 22 percent in 1994.

A number of factors are keeping older Americans in the workforce. Many are healthier and living longer than previous generations. Some decide not to fully retire because they enjoy their jobs or just want to stay active and alert.

Others need the money. The longer you work, the easier it is to afford a comfortable retirement. Longer lives and rising health care costs have made retirement more expensive at the same time that stagnant wages and the decline of the traditional pension have made it harder to save enough.

The United States isn't the only place people are planning to work longer. Around the globe, workers of all ages are moving their retirement goals later and later in life.

Even after they consider themselves officially “retired,” most Americans are hoping to work a little bit. According to a survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, or EBRI, 79 percent of U.S. workers expect to supplement their retirement income by working for pay.

There's a big problem with these plans. Just because you want to work doesn't mean you can.

When surveyed, 61 percent of American retirees say they retired sooner than they'd planned. That's more than anywhere else in the world, according to the 2017 Aegon Retirement Readiness Survey, of 16,000 people in 15 countries. Globally, 39 percent of retirees say they quit working early. Even part-time work may be unrealistic. EBRI finds that just 29 percent of retirees say they worked for pay at some point in their retirement.

Health problems may force you to quit. While longevity has generally improved along with medical care, especially for the wealthy and well educated, more recent trends in the country show many Americans' health deteriorating.

And employers might not be interested in you.

“Although age discrimination has been illegal for 50 years, employers continue to see older workers as a liability,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociology professor at the City University of New York. Seniors who want to extend a full-time career may be forced to take temporary jobs, for example, or work as independent contractors. “Frozen out of standard employment, older workers turn to more precarious (and less well-compensated) employment,” Milkman said at a conference last month.

Rather than retire, older workers sometimes switch from traditional jobs to self-employment, according to a study released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research that analyzed U.S. tax and survey data. In the process, they often switch occupations as well. They pay an economic price for going solo, the study finds, with average annual earnings dropping by $18,160 for older workers.

The irony is, those seniors who find it easiest to keep working — healthy, well-educated, and highly skilled people who enjoy their jobs — tend to be the least likely to need the money. Other older Americans, faced with few good job choices, often just decide to retire and and live frugally off Social Security and savings.

The share of older people in the workforce is higher than at any point since before the creation of Medicare. Even more older Americans might be out there working, though, if they were healthier and had better job prospects.

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