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Will Baby Boomers Reinvent Retirement?

America's concept of retirement is on the brink of a sea change, some say.

Traditionally workers retire at or around 65, quitting their jobs and heading to warmer climes with golf courses aplenty. The next big wave of retirees are the 78 million baby boomers--the first ones turn 65 in 2011--but nothing about them has ever been traditional.

A 2005 survey by the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures says that, “In recent years, the vast majority of baby boomers have told pollsters that unlike their parents, they plan to work in retirement, they need continued income, and they want greater flexibility in retirement jobs.”

Right now, according to Mark Penn's book "Microtrends," 5 million people over 65 are still working. If that number explodes, as Penn predicts, it will have a serious impact on the U.S. workforce.

America's 'Working Retired'

The "Working Retired," as Penn calls them, could be a huge boon for Social Security:

[T]he really, really big significance of the Working Retired is that, basically, everything we have been predicting for the last decade or so, regarding the collapse of Social Security, was wrong. There won't, in fact, be ten retirees for every worker, because the retirees will be working, too. The enormous Social Security burdens we've been haranguing about will be reduced, to some degree, by this trend--and largely on the part of people who want to do it.

Industries with talent gaps also could benefit. Boomers in the MetLife/Civic Ventures survey named education, social services and health care as high on their lists of desired fields, which are in need of skilled workers. The nonprofit realm in particular could reap gains, as I reported earlier this year:

For years boomers have defined our workforce, and as they approach retirement age, they're showing an interest in more socially fulfilling work.

A 2005 survey by the MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures says: "Fully half of all adults age 50 to 70 (50%) say they are interested in taking jobs now or in the future to help improve the quality of life in their communities. Leading-edge baby boomers [age 50 to 59] are especially interested, with six in 10 (58%) indicating they would consider taking jobs now or in the future that would serve their communities."

Indeed, boomers "appear to be inventing not only a new stage of life between the middle years and true old age, but a new stage of work," the survey explains. While Americans have viewed retirement as what comes after a major period of work, boomers in the survey are "instead envisioning something that resembles a second half of work."

These are all good things. But there is a downside--one I've thought about, and one mentioned by Penn: In the midst of lingering boomers, will Generation X find it difficult to move up and into leadership/management positions? I've heard fellow Gen Xers voice concerns about not being able to climb career ladders because boomers won't move on. It's impossible to entirely avoid such frustration, but employers should be aware of it, and strive to retain and promote high-performing Gen Xers while also holding onto boomers.

Other Potential Benefits

Penn says the Working Retired could be beneficial in other ways, as well. They might prompt employers to be more flexible as they seek "workplace options for cyclical and other kinds of nontraditional work."

Working boomers could extend lifespans and help dissolve longstanding dilemmas over balancing work and family obligations, according to Penn:

Plenty of studies have shown that an active body and mind are key to extending the healthy years. ... Might more and more of us get to 100--not from radical new diets and exercise plans, but from punching the clock well past 65? ... If a person can really work until 90, might that mean a whole new pressure release valve on the work-family dilemma?

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