To retire or not to retire? That’s a question a lot of older workers asked themselves in the past year as the pandemic fueled a decline in economies worldwide.
For many of them, the global adoption of remote work spurred by the outbreak made the decision to delay calling it quits for good or much easier.
It’s a win-win situation: for older workers, they get extended opportunities to bolster their financial positions and ease their transition into retirement, while their employers can continue to tap their knowledge and experience.
To be sure, the pandemic-induced downturn has been brutal for many older workers, with 5.7 million employees age 55 years and older in the U.S. losing their jobs.
That’s why remote work has been a financial and social lifeline for many.
Connie C., a 73-year-old e-commerce director, and her wife, Teresa B., a 71-year-old psychotherapist and translator, sold their Santa Fe home in November 2019 and traveled 170 miles south with their RV when the pandemic hit. Both now are working part time remotely.
“I feel like we’ve been guided to this,” said Teresa, who asked that their full names not be used to protect their privacy.
Their mobile lifestyle change partially was spurred by health issues, she says, including Connie’s heart bypass surgery in 2018.
“I realized, oh my gosh, she almost went,” said Teresa. “And, prior to that, I had sepsis and since I almost went, I thought, ‘When are we going to live? When are we going to just relax and live and be in nature?’”
Part-time remote work has allowed the couple, who married in 2014, to supplement their retirement income, particularly for health and dental costs.
“By working part time, that gave us that edge so we would not have that sword of Damocles hanging over our heads,” Connie said.
An appealing option during retirement-age years
“We’ve seen that people who are around retirement age either want or need to keep working,” says Brie Weiler Reynolds, a career-development manager and coach at FlexJobs and Remote.co. “In general, more people are working in some capacity rather than stopping altogether. Thankfully, as flexible work options have grown over the last decade and particularly over the course of the pandemic, options for working in retirement have become more flexible too.”
Remote work is an appealing alternative to in-person work during the retirement-age years. Almost 90 percent of older workers reported in a recent FlexJobs survey that the most appealing benefit of remote work was not having to commute. That was followed by avoiding exposure to the virus (76 percent), saving money on work-related expenses like meals out, gas and dry cleaning (74 percent), saving time (70 percent) and not having to wear formal clothes for work (66 percent).
Because of such considerations, remote work has played a role in the decision-making process of many retirement-aged people as they try to figure out what their next steps will be.
Employee and company benefits
Jacquelyn James, director of the Sloan Research Network on Aging & Work at Boston College, says remote work offers older workers more flexibility, autonomy and control over their time — which is what they really want as they ease toward retirement.
“In the past, [working from home] has been something that employers have reluctantly allowed, maybe one day a week, but now it’s been demonstrated quite well that it can be even better to have people working remotely,” James said.
In a survey released by Willis Towers Watson last year, workers age 50 and older were asked about their retirement plans and 50 percent said they expected to do a phased or gradual retirement, says Lauren Hoeck, senior director in retirement and financial well-being for the consulting firm, who is based in Arlington, Va.
This flexible retirement approach typically is defined as cutting back on hours and/or responsibilities or dropping from a management position to a nonsupervisory role. The rising popularity of remote or hybrid work plays a role as well.
As for the reasons for continued work after they were eligible for retirement, 36 percent of respondents said they wanted to continue, 31 percent said they needed to and 13 percent said they needed to but didn’t want to, Hoeck says.
While the survey didn’t explore the details of why certain workers wanted or needed to work, Hoeck says reasons could include needing continued income, wanting additional income or wanting to continue working and interacting with co-workers.
“Retirement is not just a financial decision,” she noted. “It’s also a physical, emotional and social decision too. Employers, if they’re looking to facilitate retirement, [should] think about the whole human being and not just the financial piece.”
Keeping older employees on the payroll into their retirement years can benefit companies as well, says James of the Sloan Research Network.
“When there are work teams that have multiple generations in them, they’re more effective than teams that are homogeneous in terms of age,” she said.
Age-diverse teams are more likely to share different ideas and perspectives, as well as institutional memory, she says, adding that mentorship programs that rely on senior employees provide additional benefits.
The shifting retirement landscape
In addition, the normalization of remote work during the pandemic has allowed people who retired from a full-time job to continue to pursue personal fulfillment and community service.
Bill W., a 55-year-old human-resources leader for a public agency in southern California, finally took his thrice-deferred retirement in late March 2020. Afterward, he decided to help a nonprofit organization address housing, hunger and other issues for vulnerable populations in his area. He has been doing much of the work remotely.
“I am very busy working as a volunteer, with my wife, on issues of community justice that I care deeply about,” he said.
Now, he’s also considering paid, short-term work, particularly if he can work remotely. Working from home early in the pandemic had made him feel safer, especially because his household contains people vulnerable to severe Covid-19.
“I now get to spend my time helping to do something I really care about,” he said. “When somebody says, ‘Can you do this?’ I can say, ‘Yes, I can,’ because I’m not driving to work, working and then coming home 12 hours a day. I’m really glad that I made the decision not to extend [full-time employment] again.”
Remote work works
Teresa and Connie agree that remote work can really support retirement dreams.
Teresa uses communication tools such as Zoom or WhatsApp to meet with her 12 clients each month. She also offers translation services and writes novels. Connie handles e-commerce and customer service for a company that makes temporary hair coloring.
“I had to reschool myself to enjoy the other half of my life and allow myself to cut back on the hours,” Connie noted. “It’s taken almost a year but finally, just a few months ago, it really kicked in.”
Now, the couple enjoy long walks with their two dogs through the New Mexico landscape and exploring the different rural towns near where they are staying. Connie plays her portable keyboard and Teresa paints and creates rock art on the sandy hills near their campground.
“I love it,” said Teresa about their lifestyle, noting that they are assessing their next steps now that travel is opening up again. “I wonder why we didn’t do it sooner. It’s so seamless, easy and enjoyable. And peaceful.”