9 reasons you may never retire

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?

More about...Retirement, Career, Economics, Investing, Side Hustles, Travel

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Mr. Frugalwoods
Mr. Frugalwoods
5 years ago

We’re shooting for early retirement from our traditional jobs. We have a long list of entrepreneurial and hobby pursuits that will likely bring in some income over the years… but we will be mostly retired by our mid thirties if all goes according to plan. What will we do? We want to have a rural homestead. So the question is more like “What won’t we do!” 🙂 Gardening, silvaculture (forest management), construction, writing, photography, art, hiking, music, astronomy, amatuer radio, and just plain hanging out! Our list is about 50x longer than that, but you get the gist. So I… Read more »

Beth
Beth
5 years ago

All good points, but I think #8 is a little off. I doubt people like Warren Buffet are still working because they’re addicted to their smart phone. (Heck, I know quite a few people who don’t work at all who are addicted to their smart phones). I think stimulation has more to do with keeping their minds active, and many people enjoy the challenge that work offers them. Or maybe they finally have the money and the social capital to start a business or chase a dream career. I’m not sure what my plans will be for retirement, but I… Read more »

Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ
5 years ago

Good post. My condolences on the loss of your mother. We can’t know when our number will be called, but we can do our best to make what time we do have productive and fulfilling. Sounds like something your mother lived by.

Matt
Matt
5 years ago

As to point #1, there is no push to develop lifelong treatments rather than cures by pharma companies. If a full cure was found to be possible for a disease that required lifelong treatment, another company would develop it and profit immensely. The belief that all pharma companies are colluding is most definitely a conspiracy theory and doesn’t bear scrutiny.

Me, too
Me, too
5 years ago
Reply to  Matt

I stopped reading at that point. Hiding a belief in an absurd theory by saying “Someone said…” is tin hat thinking at best.

As someone with a really expensive chronic disease (Pulmonary Hypertension, look it up if you haven’t heard of it), I have spoken to the top researchers in the field. There is not a conspiracy theory among the pharma companies and anyone who believes there is isn’t worth listening to on any subject.

mysticaltyger
mysticaltyger
5 years ago
Reply to  Me, too

I think it’s ridiculous to completely dismiss something that somebody says because of one thing they say is a bit off the wall. Can you honestly say YOU’VE never had any off the wall thoughts or ideas? Yeah, I know, you’re thinking “never”. I bet a few your friends and family would disagree.

Nick
Nick
5 years ago
Reply to  Me, too

Regarding Multiple Sclerosis, I know from an insider that the pharmaceutical industry is not interested in developing a proper cure as they are earning a five-figure number *each year* from a longtime patient. As nobody dies from MS directly (only from its side effects), there isn’t even an ethical reason for them to change their attitude. They just concentrate on easing the afflictions. I wish it was different.

Carla
Carla
5 years ago
Reply to  Nick

As someone living with MS (and chronic Lyme), I completely believe it. The disease modifying drugs out there is horrible (side effects) and you only have a ~40% of not getting worse on them. The drugs itself runs into the high 5 figures per year.

K
K
5 years ago
Reply to  Me, too

My heart goes out to you- my sister died at 39 of that and her care was a horrible hard thing to deal with… for her and my family.

I know treatments are a bit better now, but not by much.

phoenix1920
phoenix1920
5 years ago
Reply to  Matt

I don’t think the concern is that big pharma is failing to introduce a known cure instead of drugs, but that big pharma is considering profits when determining which of the many causes in which to invest in R&D. In other words, the list of where to invest R&D money is endless, so how do they chose? For example, many argue that cures and vaccines for ebola could have been developed years and years ago, but this is a disease that was located in rural African–a place with little money. The risk of it moving to a big city has… Read more »

Alix
Alix
5 years ago

If working is a habit, I’m more than willing to break it come retirement time.

Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom
Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom
5 years ago

I’m sorry for your loss.

For myself, I’m a stay at home mom now, so I may never be able to “retire”. Right now we’re planning on my husband not having to work after his early retirement date of 57, hopefully sooner. Whether or not we choose to work will depend on whether we find an opportunity that really interests us.

I think the reason that the retirement age is raising here at least is that the retirement ages for pensions and government pensions have been going up to cover the boomers retiring.

phoenix1920
phoenix1920
5 years ago

?? I’m sure what you mean by being a stay-at-home mom so you may never be able to “retire.” Do you mean that because you are deferring work right now, you will have to work longer when you go back? Or are you saying that if people are taking care of their home, they don’t “retire”? I’m not familiar with pensions changing the terms once a person has already entered into that type of contract. Once you enter into the pension, the contract is set and the parties can’t modify it. A person earns a set amount based on a… Read more »

mysticaltyger
mysticaltyger
5 years ago
Reply to  phoenix1920

The pension age example is sort of a yes/no answer. I’ll give you an example from my own life. I have a government pension. Our pension benefit formula is based on number of years service percentage * highest year’s salary. Most people assumed their highest year’s salary would be the last year they worked. Well we had our pay cut by over 10% back in 2011 and despite some small raises since that time, we’re not back to where we were, and that’s not even counting inflation. They did reform the pension for new hires, but for the rest of… Read more »

Steve K
Steve K
5 years ago

This is a real issue in our home. Financially I don’t have to work. My wife doesn’t want me to work. We have grandchildren to visit, hobbies to pursue.

But I want to work.

I need a shrink.

Or maybe I need meaningful volunteer work (work! see?) to keep me happy.

Good essay, Cowie. Thanks for some insights I thought were unique only to me.

Anne
Anne
5 years ago

I’m guessing it has a whole lot to do with exactly what you do for a living. I worked in the medical field and bailed out several years before I should have, in a financial sense, but OMG I was so burned out on taking care of people.

98% of people are pretty nice, but that 2% can drive you to an early grave.

Carla
Carla
5 years ago
Reply to  Anne

My mother recently retired after working as a nurse for 42 years since the age of 19 at the same hospital (the last 30 years as an RN). It was such a burnout career for her in so many ways. Multiple injuries, politics, etc. She could not wait to finally leave it all behind.

Rail
Rail
5 years ago
Reply to  Carla

As a railroad worker I can sympathize with burnout. As a Locomotive Engineer working the road I have no scheduled days off, myriad on- and off-duty times,(on call 24/7) long hours and night hours and lots of stress. I was joking with a Conductor that is going to “retire” in a year about working a job after the railroad and we laughed about a 40Hr. a week- weekend off job as “part time” :). My “golden handcuffs” are Railroad Retirement and a non match 401(k) that I can take at 60. If I work the railroad after 60 depends on… Read more »

zambian lady
zambian lady
5 years ago
Reply to  Anne

I know what you mean by that 2%. It may be a small number, but their impact is more and worse than the 98%!

Karah Womack-Hosek
Karah Womack-Hosek
5 years ago

I’m a little surprised that divorce didn’t make it into this story. As someone looking at giving up a chunk of their still-meager retirement to an ex, I’m really sweating the loss and contemplating what it means for my retirement prospects.

JL
JL
5 years ago

I suspect a lot of that difference is due to later generations of women being more likely to be in the paid workforce. Possibly some as well to fewer people being in physically demanding occupations. And some to the decline of defined-benefit pension plans in favor of 401(k)s–looks like it’s been pretty steadily high since 2007.

imelda
imelda
5 years ago
Reply to  JL

Yeah, I don’t think that people didn’t save for retirement because they expected to live off of social security.

The entire game changed in the 80s, on people who were mid-career. They thought they were going to get pensions. Then the rug was pulled out from under them.

Ely
Ely
5 years ago

Sorry about your mom. 85 isn’t a bad run though. I’m reminded of my father-in-law’s need for bypass surgery a few years ago. My husband was angry that his dad had been healthy and active all his life, ate boring food, and still needed bypass surgery. However, his dad was 80, and all the guys he was in rehab with were in their 50s. Lifestyle makes a difference. My father-in-law remains healthy and happy 5 years after surgery. Most of the retired people I know currently do not work. My dad just wrapped up his consulting gig for his former… Read more »

Beard Better
Beard Better
5 years ago

My parents definitely fall into the “habit” group. Anytime we get to talking about their retirement plans, I honestly cannot picture them in a classical retirement. Even on their days off, they end up working in the yard, working on stuff around the house, making meals several days in advance, etc. I really doubt that they’ll be able to sit around for more than a month or so before they finish everything they want to do around the house and start getting antsy about finding work to do. I’m somewhat in the same boat since I do research work. I’ve… Read more »

mysticaltyger
mysticaltyger
5 years ago
Reply to  Beard Better

Absolutely right….giving yourself options is what it should be about. Working because you WANT to is often a whole different universe than working because you NEED to. It’s certainly possible to need to work and still enjoy it…but it’s still a risky position to be in.

Brian @ Debt Discipline
Brian @ Debt Discipline
5 years ago

Sorry for the loss of your mother. My dad passed away at 72, far to young. I would like to retire from my traditional job in my 50’s, but I’m sure that will not be the last work I do. I recently talked with a friend who has over 30 years at the same company and asked when he would consider retiring, and he laugh and said and give up this big salary.

Old Guy
Old Guy
5 years ago

Will not work after retirement. Would be retired now if not for the “golden handcuffs”. Incidentally, my company is cutting off those handcuffs by eliminating our pension altogether per a phased plan. My wife and I will travel the globe upon retirement. I know the day I will retire, and I know the first 18 months of travel. We will only stop traveling if health demands it. Otherwise, we will visit a minimum of two countries per year (six months each). I will likely blog about our travels, but that ain’t work. I admit that, to my knowledge, almost no… Read more »

Even Steven
Even Steven
5 years ago

Early retirement is my retirement of choice, I want the freedom to make choices from anything to travel, part-time work, charity/volunteer, to golfing with my dad every day.

Sarah
Sarah
5 years ago

So sorry to hear about your mom. While my husband and I have goals of retiring by the time he is 45, I honestly think we will both continue working since we’re both doing what we love. The goals is more to be able to not have to work if we don’t want to – we’ll be financially secure, have passive streams of income through real estate and other investments, etc.

Great post!! Definitely got me thinking!!

Carla
Carla
5 years ago

The first reason in the post is my number one reason why it probably won’t happen. In addition to medical bills, there’s losing a full-time income and the cost of living with a chronic illness. Starting and being successful at something that would take the cuffs off of me is key.

Kasey @ Debt Perception
Kasey @ Debt Perception
5 years ago

I’m pretty sure I’ll be working until the day I die because of my excessive student loan debt. I haven’t worked a full time job yet and most of my income goes towards paying off my student loans.

Sandi_k
Sandi_k
5 years ago

Nice article, although I agree that Divorce should be added as one reason. My BIL is on his third marriage, and he’s lost a lot of assets in the recent dissolution. 🙁 My plan is to retire between 59-61. I have a pension, and I’ve been contributing to my own retirement funds since my mid-20’s. Between those two sources, Social Security, plus a house that should be paid off within a couple years of retirement — we’re going to do well. I recently calculated that SE taxes, retirement savings, and house payment (PI only) totaled nearly 50% of our gross… Read more »

Mary Grace
Mary Grace
5 years ago

Hi William, first of all I want to thank you for this very informative post. Yes, investing can make you retire comfortably and achieve financial freedom. I think you are an expert in retirement planning. I want to add some ideas, actually you don’t need to invest a lot of money just to retire comfortably. You only need to know how much should you invest to acquire your target earning asset during retirement so that you can have a passive income, you will retire comfortably that way because your money is working for you without any effort on your part.… Read more »

getagrip
getagrip
5 years ago

I envision one of three things happening when I quit the 9 to 5. a. For some reason I am offered or seek out employment. (boredom, financial need, an offer too good to turn down (hey! I can dream :-), etc.) b. For some reason something I’m doing anyway leads to employment. (hobby, volunteering, etc.) c. I find I have no need to seek or be employed again and just live off of being financially independent. If I had to make a bet, I suspect b. will be the likeliest path I’ll go down if I had to go with… Read more »

Mr. SSC
Mr. SSC
5 years ago

I plan on retiring in my early 40’s, but I’m planning on working in some capacity. Part-time teaching, giving music lessons, maybe at a local outdoor store or Fly-shop, but the point is I’ll have the freedom to work where I want to and on my terms. That’s my version of FIRE.
As many hobbies as I have, I know I’ll need some social fulfillment that I won’t get without volunteering or work of some kind.

E.B.
E.B.
5 years ago

I knew a gal who always referred to her position as “vacation money.” Her husband was a big earner and they didn’t really need her income. She never volunteered to take on extra projects or help others out. When the rest of us bit our nails during the recession, she talked about how she’d be fine if she lost her job — she’d just stay home and write a novel. Not a fun person to work with! My point is, if people who don’t need the income choose to continue to work, they should do it for the right reasons.… Read more »

Mark
Mark
5 years ago

I noticed that this thread has touched on big Pharma. Know this: Big Pharm makes large money on continuation treating of diseases: they make the money by you needing the drugs month after month to allievate symptoms or keeping the sickness at bay. They wouldnt make the same money by suddenly curing cancer, aids, and heart disease. Think about it. As for investing later in life, I find that the best way to go about it is to invest contrarian style, or against the way the masses invest in the stock market. The big boys let you go by and… Read more »

Robert F.
Robert F.
5 years ago

I’m sorry for your loss. Life is so uncertain and death is so unwanted… Therefore, we should appreciate that nowadays we can live and work longer.

Sarah
Sarah
5 years ago

For myself (26 year old female), I will never stop working. I think work is good, but in my old age my dream is to have job part time or even to volunteer. I do plan to have enough retirement money and do plan to retire by 50.

The LazyPanda
The LazyPanda
5 years ago

I think that there are actually two broad categories as to why people don’t stop to work: The first one is financial – be it for luxury or survival – it is to make money. The second one, however, is for the sake of doing things. Most people don’t like to be bored and not do anything. They want to feel valued and needed. In this category, there is also a subtlety: working because you love and appreciate what you are doing, and working because you hate being alone and don’t know what to do with yourself. While I think… Read more »

Steve K
Steve K
5 years ago
Reply to  The LazyPanda

Panda, you’re describing me perfectly. Glad to see I’m not crazy after all.

The LazyPanda
The LazyPanda
5 years ago
Reply to  Steve K

Well – you are talking to a virtual Panda bear – so I’m not sure about sanity after all 🙂
But yes – I think the problem is not with the “doing” part of the work – only with the part of which you do because you have to.

Robert
Robert
5 years ago

The “Cancer” bar graph could be relabeled “Chemotherapy,” because that’s what usually kills people. Cancer patients who refuse chemo, almost always live longer, and some never die at all from the cancer. A little statistic your oncologist will never tell you.

Qoyyuum
Qoyyuum
5 years ago

You can still be working and be retired too y’know? I mean, if it were me, I would retire but still would love to work at teaching students about my web skills. It’s my way of “passing the torch” for web greatness. 🙂

Richard Neva
Richard Neva
5 years ago

Retirement sucks, working sucks but retirement is better than working. I am a war baby and I made it to retirement with a pension and social security and a divorce. Not a penny was saved for retirement and now I live for those two checks just to eat and pay the mortgage and all those damn credit card bills I need just to survive. I cannot visit my grandchildren because they live so far away. Trips or vacations, forget it. I am home bound till I die. Not much fun.

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