Can Unretiring Make You Happier?

The Benefits of Working After Retirement

Millions of older adults say yes! Find out why going back to work on your own terms can boost your physical, mental, and fiscal well-being.

When he was in his late 60s, Bruce Dow changed his life. He got divorced, retired from his job as a psychiatrist in private practice in California, and moved to Boston, where he’d grown up. He spent the first year getting settled and bought a house on Cape Cod.

“I was open to working, but I didn’t really have a plan at all,” he says. He had a few interviews, but nothing seemed to click, and besides, he was enjoying his freedom. “Everything was so new, I hadn’t had a chance to get bored,” he admits.

Then Dow heard about a job as a psychiatrist on the Cape. This time, he’d be working with a team of therapists, nurses, and other staff to provide treatment at the community level for people with serious mental health issues. He had two sets of interviews and got the job. Twelve years later, at age 82, he’s still there, working three days a week.

“I love this job—it feels like the best job I’ve ever had,” says Dow, who plans to work for a few more years, if possible. He’s helping people, and he values his interactions with his coworkers. In fact, Dow discovered something important after working from home during the pandemic: “One of the things that I didn’t like is that I didn’t have the team around me, and I really missed them.”

Dow is the new face of retirement. Today, a full 40% of employed people age 65 and older have been previously retired, according to a survey by the RAND Corporation. By 2024, 1 in 4 workers will be 55 or older, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while some people find they have to go back to work, many, like Dow, are working by choice.

Here’s why: “Work for a lot of people isn’t just about the paycheck—it’s about the relationships and the people that they meet,” says Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, MSW, a gerontology instructor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and author of Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring for Your Loved One.

It’s also about having a routine, she adds. “To me, the kiss of death in retirement is when you have nothing on your calendar. People think, ‘Oh, this is great. I don’t have to get up at a certain time.’ And I think that that’s wonderful for a period, but if you have that indefinitely …”

Tempted to go back to work because your calendar seems a little sparse? Here are the surprising perks that returning to a job after retirement can bring:

Your health will improve

Loneliness and isolation can take a toll on your body and mind, says FitzPatrick, citing studies that show an increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and cognitive decline among people who don’t have many social connections. Researchers from the University of Maryland found that older Americans who continued to work, either at a new job or the same one, were less likely to be diagnosed with major diseases such as cancer or heart disease—and they were more likely to maintain their independence and get through their daily tasks without limitations.

You’ll probably be less stressed

This is especially true if you take something part time or opt for a low-pressure job. “Since I’m only working half the time, I have a long weekend to recover, so it’s more manageable than it was working full time,” says Dow.

FitzPatrick’s neighbor is a serial retiree who has taken jobs as a hostess in a chain restaurant and working behind the counter at a gift shop. When she feels like leaving to go South during the winter, she does. “I think that that’s a nice position to be in,” notes FitzPatrick. “That said, she doesn’t need the money—she’s doing it for fun and a little extra cash.”

You’ll feel useful

A study of Dutch retirees found that working after they’d retired gave them a sense of purpose. And Dow feels that his present job is meaningful and gratifying: “The people that I treat are people that other doctors were not able to treat. I'm building a reputation as somebody who actually can treat serious mental illness,” he says, adding that his present work is much more challenging than his old job in California.

You’ll be part of a team

Working on common goals with others gives you a sense of camaraderie, says FitzPatrick. “I’m helping patients with mental illnesses get better,” Dow says. But he’s not doing it alone. “I have to make a decision about what medicine to use, and it’s really nice to have the other people there too, because they know the patient better than I do, generally. So I can sometimes gain the knowledge I need to make a good decision,” Dow explains.

It’s a two-way street, though. As the only psychiatrist, he helps his coworkers develop professionally and learn how to do their work, he says. And that’s the beauty of a multigenerational workplace. “I think that we underestimate how much we can learn from people of other age groups,” FitzPatrick says.

You may score some perks

Don’t overlook jobs that are the opposite of what you did for a living. If you love the food at Panera, get a 10-hour-a-week gig there: “You’ll meet some new people and get the discount,” says FitzPatrick. “I think golf courses and tennis courts are great examples of this, because if that’s a hobby that you like, and you want the tee times and access to the golf course, it’s just a great fit.” The same goes for a gym. Working behind the counter can snag you a free membership and access to classes, if that appeals to you.

Just be aware of the cost of going back to work, says Alexandra Armstrong, a certified financial planner in Washington, D.C., and coauthor of Your Next Chapter: A Woman’s Guide to a Successful Retirement. “Your income should be high enough to easily sustain these ‘new’ expenses like commuting, clothing, meals, and care of any person or animal that’s dependent on you,” she notes.

You won’t get dinged for collecting Social Security

That is, if you wait until your full retirement age (FRA) to start the benefits, says Armstrong. Your FRA depends on the year you were born, so you’ll need to check for when that will be. But if you decided to start collecting benefits in your early 60s and continue working, your benefits might be reduced.

“For 2021, Social Security will deduct $1 of every $2 you earn over $18,960 if you are under your FRA,” Armstrong explains. “On the year you reach FRA, it will deduct $1 for every $3 you earn over $50,520 until the month you hit full retirement age.”

But say you retired, took Social Security, then got a job that paid you enough that you didn’t need the money anymore. If it’s been less than 12 months, you can withdraw your application, says Armstrong. “You will have to repay all the benefits you received, but you’ll get a higher monthly benefit when you restart later.” You can also suspend monthly benefits at any time, as long as you’ve reached full retirement age and are younger than 70.

Working might even boost your bottom line

Social Security bases your monthly benefits on a formula that averages what you received every month during your highest-earning 35 years of working. “If the job you take later in your career pays you more than some of your earlier years, Social Security reviews benefits annually and you may see an increase in your retirement income,” Armstrong explains. And if you didn’t work a full 35 years, getting a job now can fill in those missing years, she adds.

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