Working in retirement – or not

Tom Foster

By Tom Foster
E. Thomas Foster Jr. is head of strategic relationships for retirement plans for MassMutual.
Posted on Aug 21, 2019

How we feel about work is often complicated.

Popular culture is filled with films, songs and articles about workers overcoming various circumstances of employment: rising from humble positions to reach the top, disgruntled employees telling off the boss and quitting, or burned-out executives escaping the corner office for meaning instead of money. These stories play to our hearts rather than our heads, though, and rarely reflect reality.

Working in retirement can be complicated too. While many pre-retirees – those 5-10 years before actually retiring – expect to work at least part time, reality does not always meet expectations.

The LIMRA Secure Retirement Institute recently published a comprehensive study about working in retirement and how often what pre-retirees anticipate actually plays out once they retire. The findings may be helpful for financial advisors as they counsel clients and retirement plan participants about working in retirement, what is a realistic path, and what steps to take to find the right work situation.

The notion of working in retirement, believe it or not, is a popular one. Seven in 10 pre-retirees say they are at least considering some form of work for pay in retirement, according to the LIMRA.1 Once retirement begins, however, the number of those who actually do show up to a job drops to 43 percent.

That’s still a fair amount of “retired” people who are working rather than primarily recreating, relaxing or ruminating over their next leisure activity. So why do retirees work? What’s their motivation for toiling rather than taking it easy?

LIMRA found that retirees’ top five reasons for working were staying intellectually engaged, earning discretionary cash, keeping physically active, maintaining social connections, and enjoying work that they did previously. For retirees who had at least $500,000 in assets, the primary motivations were intellectual and social.

Whatever the motivation, those who want to work are more likely to realize their goal if they’re realistic and reasonable. Employers still hold many of the cards and the law of supply and demand remains very much in play.

Nine in 10 pre-retirees and eight in 10 recent retirees who want to work report they only want to do so “on my terms,” according to LIMRA. They want to call their own hours and fill in their own schedules. So how’s that working out?

More than half (54 percent) of pre-retirees who work part time say their employer dictates their hours, LIMRA reports. A quarter (23 percent) say the time of year is the determining factor.

Many retirees work more than they anticipated before retiring. Among those who anticipate working, half expect to work 20 hours or more. Once retired, 70 percent work that many hours, with 35 percent laboring 40 hours a week or more. Didn’t see that one coming.

Perhaps the demands of jobs and work schedules discourage many retirees. While nearly half anticipate working in retirement, only 16 percent actually do so, according to LIMRA. Expectations for other activities such as leisure, socializing, exercising and caregiving are more in line with what retirees actually experience.

Working in retirement certainly has many benefits, including financial, emotional and physical. It’s not that surprising that some people never want to retiree.

The key takeaway for advisors from LIMRA’s survey is that clients who want to work need to understand that they may need to be flexible and plan ahead. It may make sense to begin networking with colleagues and other contacts who may know of the right job. Reach out to potential employers before retiring, and discuss opportunities, schedules, pay and other issues before jumping into retirement with the expectation of continued employment.

Working is a big part of retirement for many people. It can help keep retirees both physically and mentally sharp as well as provide meaning and a sense of purpose for their lives. Those who anticipate working in retirement – especially pre-retirees who may need to work to finance their lifestyles – are encouraged to gather as much information as possible about what opportunities await.

Information is power and those who have command of the facts typically make the best decisions, whether it’s working, retiring or a combination of both.

E. Thomas Foster Jr. is head of strategic relationships for retirement plans for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. (MassMutual).


Limra, "Journey Chronicles, Transition Experiences of Life and Work in Retirement, " 2019.