In 'unretirement,' returning to work helps find new meaning, says Harvard professor

May 19, 2018

Recent trends have shown more people over the age of 65 are returning to work after retirement or only partially retiring rather than stopping work entirely. An economist at Harvard Medical School said this practice -- known as "unretirement" -- is becoming increasingly common, and not because of economic straits.

Nicole Maestas teaches health care policy at Harvard and conducted a study in 2010 about retirement trends. On this episode, we talked about the desire to continue working later in life.

The most recent data from the American Working Conditions Survey in 2015 found that 39 percent of workers ages 65 to 71 had previously retired. That means that roughly two out of every five people of retirement age return to work instead of staying retired.

What originally drove her to this research, Maestas said, was the worry that people were doing this because retirement had gone horribly wrong and they had run into unexpected bills or health problems.

"For some people, it's a way to transition to a different type of career."

“What I found, actually, was the opposite,” Maestas said. “For many people, they might indeed value the income and need the income, but it becomes part of more of a strategy, if you will, by which people will continue working and kind of gradually leave the workforce.”

Maestas said this is largely because people seek change from what they have been doing for most of their life.

“Unretirement is unique in its ability to solve this problem, and this is that I want to do something different than what I have been doing,” Maestas said. “For some people, it’s a way to transition to a different type of career or to change into something that better meets [their] needs.”

Finding a new career can help someone recover from a burnout or escape their stressful work environment, Maestas said. Some people are in employment situations that do not meet their needs in some way, like unsuitable hours or a lack of promotion.

“This is this idea of burnout, that this stress or this discomfort rises and rises and rises to the point where someone says, ‘I just can’t do this anymore, [but] I’m not ready to stop working altogether,’” Maestas said. “It gives them a chance to stop what they’re doing, recover, and then, maybe flow back into [the] workforce in a better situation than before.”

Though few of the subjects of her research experienced unexpected expenses in retirement, what was practically universal was people being surprised about the boredom that comes with retirement, Maestas said. She largely attributed this to a lack of purpose.

“The idea that people find purpose or meaning in their work is very important to our well-being at work, to our mental health and to this idea that when your work is harmful to your health in some way, that’s not a great situation,” Maestas said. “Among people who find purpose and meaning in work, the chances are this work is actually more beneficial to their health.”

Because Americans are living longer and will likely struggle with a lack of purpose later in life, Maestas recommended planning retirement around the mindset of finding meaning, including a possible return to the workforce. She said to ask oneself, “How happy am I in my current work situation? Is there a better situation that I could reasonably achieve?”

“I think when that’s the frame of mind around unretirement, it becomes part of a new way of planning your later years,” Maestas said. “Many people have successfully navigated this transition in a way that suggests this really is more than just something a few people have managed to achieve and actually part of a strategy.”