Working Past Retirement Age: Fulfilling Careers Benefit Older Adults by Keeping Them Active and Engaged

These days, most people can’t imagine working at any job for 25 years. Work has become a series of short-term gigs and bouncing around to many in the younger generations. But, sometimes, a person finds a job she loves, and stays. For Florence Rigney, a nurse in Washington State, it meant staying in a job for 25 years—25 years after retirement age, that is. In fact, she’s just recently celebrated her 90th birthday at Tacoma General Hospital, where she’s worked since 1946.

working past retirement ageThese days, most people can’t imagine working at any job for 25 years. Work has become a series of short-term gigs and bouncing around to many in the younger generations. But, sometimes, a person finds a job she loves, and stays. For Florence Rigney, a nurse in Washington State, it meant staying in a job for 25 years—25 years after retirement age, that is. In fact, she’s just recently celebrated her 90th birthday at Tacoma General Hospital, where she’s worked since 1946.
In Tacoma, she’s an institution. In life, she’s SeeSee, who loves being able to help people, change lives, and share with newer doctors and nurses her decades of wisdom and experience. At 90, she’s the oldest practicing nurse in America, and has been working as a nurse for 70 years since just after the end of WWII. She retired in 1996 at the age of 67, but that only lasted five months before she was back on the job.
Working at a career she loves is what motivates SeeSee—more and more, older adults are deciding to keep doing what they love. Continuing to work at a job that matters and that motivates a person can extend their lifespan, keep away depression and isolation, and improve an older adult’s overall self-esteem and well-being. Work isn’t life, but it can be a key part of what makes life more rewarding.

Working into Retirement Age: Finances Versus Feelings

The average age for retirement is going up, for a number of reasons. Worker benefits are being lowered, and the idea of a pension, instead of a potentially more lucrative, but also more vulnerable 401(k), seems to be a thing of the past. The average age of retirement right now is 62 (it was at 59 in 2002), and it’s expected to go up to 66 in the next few years.
To be sure, there are economic reasons to keep working that don’t have to do with deprivation. It can be a very rational decision, as Social Security benefits currently go up by 8% for each year a person works after 65. Having a few additional years of paychecks and benefits can also help to create a more stable nest egg. And, as people are living longer, and living healthier, working until 70 isn’t always unreasonable.
But, there are other reasons than money to keep working. Many choose to work because, like SeeSee, it’s something they love. Choosing to work past the accepted retirement age confirms that older adults aren’t suddenly different people: they have the same cares and passions as they always did, and should be able to keep pursuing them.

The Emotional Benefits of Continuing in a Fulfilling Career

We talked about improving economic security, but some of the non-monetary, emotional reasons older adults choose to keep working include:

  • The desire to contribute: Nurses and doctors, researchers, scientists, and other science and health professions help improve society—and often literally save lives. People who have been driven by service their entire lives don’t always turn it off just because society says that 65 is the right time to stop contributing.
  • The desire to pass along knowledge: No matter your job, if you’ve worked at it long enough, you’ve built up a storehouse of knowledge and information. You know how the business has evolved, know its roots, and just how to get things done. You have information to pass on, wisdom to impart, and younger workers to mentor. Some experts think that older adults don’t like to suddenly have bosses that are younger than them, but a chance to help people grow, learn, and become not only better workers, but people, can be truly motivating.
  • The desire for social interaction: At work, you’re constantly talking to people, contributing to projects, arguing and discussing, creating, sharing: this kind of socialization is extremely important for avoiding the kind of isolation and loneliness that can come with aging, or with separating yourself from your former life.
  • The benefits of a routine: We’ve all heard stories about someone who retires and suddenly feels like they don’t know what to do with themselves. While there are many ways to keep exploring and growing, for many people, the comfort of having a set routine, even in a part-time job, provides them the structure they desire.
  • Improved mental health: Problem-solving. Emotional intelligence. Balancing time constraints and project requirements. These are all aspects of work that are a near-constant, and that keep minds sharp. Analytical skills are needed, and can help keep mental health strong. Work can be a constant mental exercise.
  • A longer lifespan: Researchers from Oregon State University did a long-term study and discovered that healthy adults who worked past the age of 65 had an 11% lower mortality rate than those who retired. This cut across all fields: blue collar, white collar, no collar.

Working can be, for the reasons listed above, a huge benefit to mental and physical health. Many times, this work isn’t always what you’ve been doing your whole life. SeeSee, who has been working at the same station for 70 years, is an exception.
Many older adults find new careers and new pursuits. They look for jobs that might have been a passion before they started their careers, or try to make a new business out of the learning they’ve accumulated throughout their lives. In fact, people aged 55-64 have the highest entrepreneurial activity of any age group, even more than 20-something Silicon Valley whiz kids. There’s a reason for that: they bring a lifetime of experiences, of challenges met, of failures learned from, and of lessons both taught and learned.
That can be true for anyone. It’s a pernicious myth that once you hit a certain age you’re done with working, that your days of learning are over, and that what you can contribute is limited. It’s one that more and more older adults are fighting against. People like SeeSee are proving that a love and passion for work, for contributing, and for being part of society doesn’t have to go away. For her, and for many other older adults, it’s not just work—it’s life.
At Institute on Aging, we know that you are still you, always you. We encourage older adults and their loved ones to celebrate aging as a time of exploration and independence. Connect with us today to learn more about our programs.

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