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Is Working Past Age 65 a Realistic Option?

More seniors are remaining in the workforce, but saving remains an essential safeguard against unforeseen circumstances

Adam Zoll 6 August, 2012 | 3:33PM

Question: 
My retirement portfolio has underperformed during the past several years, and it looks like I'll have to keep working longer than I had anticipated. Are there any potential pitfalls of which I should be aware? 

Answer: 
Working into your late 60s and 70s, once seen as unusual, is indeed becoming more common. In fact, in the US the number of American workers age 65 and older doubled from 1977 to 2007, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Therefore, it's no surprise to hear many people talk about working beyond age 65.

The stock market's mediocre performance during the past decade, as well as the housing bust, has left many with fewer assets than they'd anticipated at this point in their careers. That means that many aspiring retirees might have no choice but to keep working if they hope to maintain anything resembling their current lifestyles in retirement.

The increasing number of seniors staying in the workforce is partly a byproduct of people living longer. For example, in 1970, the average American aged 65 could expect to live another 15.2 years. By 2009 that figure had climbed to 19.2 years. The percentage of older workers is expected to continue rising in the coming years in many developed nations.

Meanwhile, many people plan to keep working because they enjoy it, and working helps them put off having to tap into retirement savings, improving the odds against them outliving their money.

Health & Job Market are Among Factors to Consider
Even though the workforce in many developed nations is getting greyer, assuming you will be able to work in retirement, and therefore don't need to save much, could turn out to be a costly mistake. A recent survey found that 70% of current American workers plan to work for pay in retirement, but only 27% of current retirees said they'd actually done so. Moreover, 72% of current workers said they were very or somewhat confident they'd be able to work as long as they need to, whereas 54% of retirees said they were not confident they could find work if necessary.

There are a number of reasons workers' plans to stay on the job well into their senior years can become derailed. Below are a few of the most common.

Health
Many seniors encounter health problems that cause them to drop out of the workforce. And even those who remain in good health might find that they need to stop working in order to care for a spouse or another loved one. In a 2011 survey, nearly two thirds of respondent who retired earlier than planned said health problems or disability played a role in their decision to stop working.

Physical Demands
Some occupations can be hard on an aging body. Jobs that require physical stamina, such as construction, or long periods of standing, such as nursing or retail sales, might prove too taxing for some older workers.

Skill Requirements
Although plenty of today's seniors are extremely tech-savvy, staying current on the latest software or technical skills can be a challenge for some older workers. They also might have to compete for work with younger, less expensive job-seekers whose skills are more up-to-date.

Unemployment
Many older workers find that once a job is lost, it's very hard to find another. In fact, the estimated percentage of unemployed workers age 55 and older who were out of work for at least a year has increased dramatically in recent years, from 11% in 2008 to 36% in 2011. Companies might be reluctant to hire them at higher salaries when lower-cost, younger workers are available. Many older workers find they have no choice but to take a lower-paying job or drop out of the workforce altogether.

Economic Factors
In addition to the variables already mentioned, consider larger issues that can affect all workers. What if the economy goes into the dumps and unemployment spikes around the time you reach retirement age? What if the company you work for hits hard times and has to let people go? Also bear in mind that competition among people with your profile--older workers with lots of experience but higher salary requirements--is likely to increase as more remain in the workforce in the coming years.

The Importance of Your Own Personal Safety Net
Working in retirement can be a great idea, as more and more seniors are discovering, but assuming it will be an option for you is a risky proposition. So much can go wrong, and if it does and you haven't saved enough, you might find yourself facing a very unhappy, non-working retirement. A far better strategy is to put away as much as possible and at as early an age as possible to allow your retirement savings time to grow. That way a working retirement can be a choice rather than a necessity. And if work turns out not to be an option, you'll still have a good-sized nest egg to fall back on rather than a pile of regrets.

The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

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About Author

Adam Zoll  is an assistant site editor with Morningstar.com, the sister site of Morningstar.co.uk.