This article is by staff writer William Cowie.

My mom passed away a little less than a year ago. All her life she was the picture of health: She walked every day and ate super-healthy. The extended family dreaded going there, because they knew there would be no sugary goodies, only healthy (boring) eats. We used to joke and say she was so healthy they’d have to shoot her on the Day of Judgment … because she was never going to die. What took her in the end was breast cancer, and the fact that she didn’t notice it until it was too late. You just can’t account for everything in life, can you? October, as you may know from the pink shoes football players wear this month, is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As one of the slogans says: “Big or small, let’s save them all!”

Mom was just over 85, and, young as she was when she had to go, she still beat the odds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics just published its latest report on expected mortality in the USA. Female infants born in 2012 can expect to live 81.2 years; males, 76.4. This is higher than it’s ever been, largely because of progress in the fight against disease: “The death rates for heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death that account for 46.5% of all deaths, have been falling since 1999,” the report says. The chart below shows the age-adjusted death rates for the ten leading causes of death:

Source: CDC/NCHS, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality
Source: CDC/NCHS, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality

Increased awareness of healthy diet and progress in cancer screening and medication have made a noticeable difference in the two leading causes of death. Breast Cancer Awareness Month has played its part in helping to reduce fatalities from the disease.

Now that the odds say you are likely to live longer, you will need more gold to fund those golden years. Whether you learn to invest or use certificates of deposit, the retirement years aren’t called the golden years for nothing — you are going to need more and more gold just to make it through them.

There is more to life than merely surviving, however. As we face more years on this planet, the quality of that life becomes more important. The news there is good, too: Because we’re healthy and productive for longer, more people keep working past the age which used to be reserved for retirement. This chart shows the percentage of people 55 and over that are still active in the labor force:

labor force participation rate 55+

You can see the percentage of people over 55 participating in the workforce has grown by almost a third in the past 20 years. Even more dramatic is the percentage of workers over 75 that are still active in the workforce has doubled in the past 20 years.

Why are people working later?

Why are more people over the traditional retirement age still working? Isn’t the dream to stop? I’m 63, with many friends and family who are in this age bracket, and most of us still “work,” although the definition of work has definitely, shall we say, loosened up. I looked and asked around to see what our ancient acquaintances do, and why they do it. Here are a few results from the unscientific poll:

1. Medical bills. Some folks encounter unavoidable hardships, like family members with extended (and expensive) illnesses, like Alzheimers and cancer, which deplete the funds they’ve set aside for retirement. One of the reasons life expectancy has increased over the past hundred years is the “quick killers” have been eradicated and the illnesses not yet conquered are expensive and can drag on forever. Someone suggested that’s because drug companies have shifted their research and development (R&D) efforts to drugs which don’t cure things but require, instead, that you to stay on them forever so the companies can make money off you for as long as possible. I don’t know whether that’s just another conspiracy theory or not, but the bottom line is that many people choose to work because medical bills have erased their retirement funds.

2. Debt. Many didn’t pay off their houses and incurred debt for things like cars, toys and other luxuries. Some took on student debt for their grandchildren, only to find — for whatever reason — that those grandchildren have not made scheduled payments, so they have to make those payments. Included in this category is “helping out” with said progeny’s educations, because their parents can’t. Even though this doesn’t involve debt, it involves a new obligation, for which they have to generate an income.

3. Social Security is not enough. Actually, it never was meant to be enough. It was only meant to eliminate abject poverty. Many people, it seems, didn’t provide for their retirement and told themselves they’ll be able to make it on their Social Security sums. When they discovered that Social Security wouldn’t be enough, they found that they would have to keep working. Rick, a friend of ours, had a successful small business, one which they counted on to provide for them in their old age. A recession crushed the business. He and his wife think they’ll have to work the rest of their lives because Social Security is not enough.

Not all 60- and 70-somethings have to work, though. Here are several other reasons I found why they’re not lying on the beach in Belize or playing bridge in a senior center.

4. Travel. My sister-in-law, who lives in Switzerland, says they get a generous state pension over there, but she and her husband love to travel. So, every few months she goes to work for a friend for three days a week, to save up money so she can visit family in South Africa and come visit us every two or three years. Others do the same: They find a part-time or seasonal job to make an extra few bucks so they can travel or do something else they enjoy.

5. People. Our friend Ken is a retired teacher, and his pension is more than adequate. He’s an outgoing, social type of guy and every time we go somewhere together, we laugh all the way there and all the way back. Everybody needs a Ken in their life. However, even though his mom and kids are local, he still feels lonely a lot. So, every summer he goes to work in the garden section of a local Home Depot, for no other reason than to be around people. It’s about four months every year, so he gets his people fix and still has time off to do other fun stuff.

A variation of the previous two is the increase in mobility we’ve seen in the past 50 years. Kids now are spread across the globe, not just across the states. (Our family is spread over four continents and many countries, and we’re by no means unique.) This means that grandparents don’t have nearly the same access to their grandchildren and family members as they used to. That translates into idle time, which, coupled with increased health, increases the temptation to go back to work.

6. Stimulation. Between the media, smartphones and the Internet, we have become used to more and more stimulation bombarding us 24/7. Whether we’re aware of it or not, many of us have become addicted to that. How many find it impossible even to go through a lunch, lasting less than an hour, without several furtive looks at their phone? I work with the general manager of a time share ski resort here in Colorado (oops, busted — I’m still working, too!) and he told me yesterday that they had to add a business center to their resort. Although people go there for time off, it seems they simply can’t do without the electronic tie that binds. Most people now are unable to simply lie anywhere during the day and relax without having to fidget and do something. Many studies have found that remaining intellectually active prolongs a healthy life. So, many go back to work simply to feed the stimulation addiction.

7. Technology. Several of my friends have discovered the Internet allows them to do so much more with their hobbies through social networks, bulletin boards, forums and special interest groups, that they end up turning their hobbies into small businesses. Although they end up working for themselves, they are still working. I’m one of those: I write and do other things. In between my blog writing, I just finished writing my first book on the cycles of the economy. The next project is, of course, finding an agent and publisher to publish it. A younger friend turned his model railroad hobby into a successful national business, all of it run through the Internet.

8. Fun and fulfillment. Another variation of the factors above: New inventions and new discoveries have added significantly to the list of things we can do for fun. Bungee jumping as a form of recreation didn’t exist in the 1950s. Neither did eBay, where many now sell the crafts they love to spend their time making. As technology enables people to make money from their hobbies, more of those hobbies turn into work. The big difference, of course, is they have more fun doing that kind of work because of the fulfillment. The fact they aren’t working for “the boss” doesn’t hurt, either.

9. Habit. If you spend the 40 most important years of your life getting up in the morning, grabbing breakfast and going to work, that’s more than a habit, that’s a lifestyle. For many people, it’s a habit that’s hard to break. The first three weeks that you can sleep in are heaven, but it doesn’t take too long for that novelty to wear off. That’s when it becomes harder and harder to live a life that is radically different from what you have always done. Many people continue working for no other reason than it’s all they know to do. This is particularly prevalent among business owners, who see their businesses as their babies. Rather than selling the business and retiring, they simply keep working.

In summary

Fewer and fewer people desire a passive retirement because they are healthier and there are many more options than were available to our parents. Some have no choice, either because of circumstances or poor planning. The good news is that every day brings more things to do which are both fun and rewarding.

Do you think you will be working later? Do you expect to follow the traditional path of passive retirement or do you plan to keep doing something, either for stimulation or reward, or both? If so, what do you see yourself doing to make the most of your golden years?

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