What Older Workers Want

70 is the new 50 at work these days. A new survey about what older workers want shows how much our timeline has changed.

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Much is made about 70 being the new 50, usually in the context of health and lifestyle. Medical breakthroughs and our new longevity certainly are a blessing. We are able to enjoy physical activities at an age when previous generations were pretty much stuck in a rocking chair on the front porch.

Increasingly, though, 70 is the new 50 at work too—and that has less appeal for folks who do not enjoy their job or may work in a physically demanding field like construction or law enforcement. Working until later in life is fast becoming the norm, for a few reasons. Eligibility for full Social Security benefits is creeping higher. The Great Recession has forced many to put off retirement out of financial need. Others simply want to work to stay engaged.

Meanwhile, industries like energy and insurance face a brain drain if boomers retire en masse. Companies are using flexible work schedules and making other concessions to coax older workers in such fields to stick around. In many ways, a 70-year-old today thinks about work the same way as a 50-year-old would have several generations ago.

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For example, workers in their 50s demonstrate almost no intent to start winding down, according to a new survey from AARP and the Society for Human Resource Management. These workers overwhelmingly say that they plan to stay in their same career until they retire, an indication that they have not even begun to consider phasing into retirement through a part-time position or hobby job. Earlier generations commonly began to start thinking about such things in their 50s.

The break point seems to come at around age 70. Above that age, the rate of workers on the job because they want to be—not because they need to be—roughly doubles. That’s also the age at which workers start to see benefits like a 401(k) as less valuable, presumably because they are about done saving. Earlier generations might have felt that way in their 50s.

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Interestingly, workers in their 50s place the highest value on flex time, job sharing and formal phased retirement. You might think older workers would value flexibility even more. They don’t, and by a wide margin. For example, 63% of workers in their 50s view phased retirement as important, compared to 50% of workers in their 60s and just 36% of workers age 70-plus. This is probably because more workers in their 50s are on the job out of need and still have considerable family and other outside obligations. For the most part, workers 70-plus have all the flexibility they need—it’s called the ability to quit if they’re not happy.