Even tennis great Serena Williams, who earlier this month said she’d be hanging up her racket at age 40, insisted she “never liked the word retirement.” Instead, she said, she’ll be “evolving away from tennis toward other things that are important,” including her family and a venture firm that bankrolls entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds.
Traditional notions of retirement are changing at a time when people are living longer and facing greater economic uncertainty. Power players aren’t the only ones clinging to a robust work ethic or reinventing themselves in later life. The over-65 set is now the fastest growing demographic in the workforce, according to the US Census Bureau.
Driven by financial needs, or a cultural imperative to be productive, the trend toward putting off retirement has been building slowly for decades — but got a boost from the pandemic, which enabled many to work from home, and the recent stock selloff, which shrunk retirement savings.
Men are leaving their jobs at age 64.7 on average, three years later than they did 40 years ago, while the average departure age for working women has climbed five years to 62.1 in the same span. Legions of employees of both genders are sticking around even longer.
Middle-class retirement vignettes — the gold watch presented at a formal retirement party, afternoons golfing and fishing, winter days lounging poolside in sunny Florida — are as dated as they are cliched.
“Retirement for hard-working people does not exist,” said Bishop John M. Borders III, 64, who’s been pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood for the past 41 years, after an earlier career as singer and producer for the Energetics, a rhythm and blues band. “There’s a shift of energy, a shift of talents, a shift of priorities.”
That shift could mean a new job, or career, for a new stage of life. But it’s just as likely to mean mentoring, consulting, or lending a hand to charities and community groups — anything but kicking back.
“I want to stay engaged,” said Alexandra Lee, 66, an organizational dynamo who’s led the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy in Boston and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy in San Francisco, and now runs her own strategic consulting practice in Arlington. She also paints, hikes, stocks shelves at the local food pantry, and helps plan the Christmas in the City program for Boston’s poor and homeless children.
Lee said digital communication keeps people in the loop long after they’d sworn to throttle down, but can also make them worry about becoming irrelevant.
“We’re flooded with information all day long, and it’s hard to set that aside,” she said. “You have to be very intentional about this stage of life, to shape it. . . . There’s a lot of baggage that comes with the word retirement. The fear is you’re just going to fold up and go away, and nobody’s going to care about you.”
Un-retiring is also a growing phenomenon, exemplified at the highest level by former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, 45, a senior citizen by football standards, whose games are still watched obsessively by thousands of Massachusetts fans even though he no longer helms the local team.
More than 4 million Americans gave their notice in the first 15 months of the pandemic, about 2.4 million above the normal trend, a Federal Reserve study found. Since then, about 1.5 million retirees have returned to work, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Many in the political world never retire at all, following the playbook of 79-year-old President Biden and a Congress packed with septuagenarians, including Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey, 76, and Elizabeth Warren, 73. Eighty-year-old Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont drew a crowd of about 1,500 to a Cambridge labor rally last Sunday, with sun-drenched supporters urging him to run for president again.
The nation’s top senior advocacy group changed its name to AARP from the American Association of Retired Persons years ago, effectively excising the R-word to reflect the reality that more than a third of its members still work. Whether punching in full time or part time, or volunteering at a food bank or a senior center, “we all want to be in the game,” said Mike Festa, 68, director of AARP Massachusetts.
“Work gives you a sense of purpose, whether or not you’re working for income,” Festa said. “Very few people are happy doing nothing.”
Increasing longevity, the fruit of better fitness and medical advances, colors decisions to postpone retirement, said Alicia Munnell, 79, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. “We still have 20 years of life expectancy at 65 now,” she said. “And people like the structure, having some activity you do on a regular basis.”
Even more important, for many, are the economic drivers. A large segment of the workforce hasn’t saved enough and can’t afford to retire. In a report released last month, Munnell cited the switch in much of the private sector from funding pensions, which provide a guaranteed income, to 401(k) plans, which are vulnerable to market declines and fluctuation. She also noted changes in Social Security that create incentives for people to collect larger monthly payments if they wait to claim benefits at age 70.
For baby boomers who embrace concepts such as making a difference, reinvention, and second acts, work is more than a paycheck, Munnell said. “We’re more interested in work than younger generations,” she said. “The younger generation is more interested in life balance, and work is less of a priority.”
The compulsion to keep working in later years, though, isn’t always healthy.
“Cultural, economic, and social arrangements in the United States affect how people think about retirement, how they talk about it, and how they feel about it,” said Margaret Gullette, 81, a resident scholar at Brandeis University’s women’s studies research center in Waltham. She said some of the most hard-core retirement resisters feel the weight of “a need to appear productive, and that’s sort of sad.”
But practical considerations also figure in.
“There’s only so many rounds of golf you can play in a week,” said Festa at AARP Massachusetts, “certainly here in New England.”