The youngest baby boomers have just turned 50, bringing retirement within sight for the entire generation. But many boomers don't expect to work at full throttle until the last day at the office. More than 40% want to shift gradually from full- to part-time work or take on less stressful jobs before retiring, a recent survey by Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found.
It's a concept called phased retirement, and it's catching on. Last November the federal government okayed a plan to let certain long-tenured workers 55 and up stay on half-time while getting half their pension and full health benefits. Says Sara Rix, an adviser at AARP Public Policy Institute: "The federal government's program may influence private companies to follow their lead."
Formal phased-retirement plans remain rare; only 18% of companies offer the option to most or all workers. Informal programs are easier to find—roughly half of employers say they allow older workers to dial back to part-time, Transamerica found. But only 21% of employees agree that those practices are in place. "There's a big disconnect between what employers believe they are doing and what workers perceive their employers to be doing," says Transamerica Center president Catherine Collinson.
So you may have to forge your own path if you want to downshift in your career. Here's how:
Resist Raiding Your Savings
Before you do anything, figure out what scaling back will mean for your eventual full retirement. As a part-timer, your income will drop. Ideally you should avoid dipping into your savings or claiming Social Security early, since both will cut your income later. If you're eligible for a pension, the formula will heavily weight your final years of pay. So a lower salary may make phased retirement too costly.
Cutting back your retirement saving, though, may hurt less than you think. Say you were earning $100,000 and split that in half from 62 to 66. If you had saved $500,000 by 60, and you delay tapping that stash or claiming Social Security, your total income would be $66,700 a year in retirement, according to T. Rowe Price. That's only slightly less than the $69,500 you would have had if you kept working full-time and saving the max until 66.
Start at the Office
If your employer has an official phased-retirement program, your job is easier. Assuming you're eligible, you might be able to work half-time for half your pay and still keep your health insurance.
Then ask colleagues who have made that move what has worked for them and what pitfalls to avoid. Devise a plan with your boss, focusing on how you can solve problems, not create new ones with your absence. Perhaps you can mentor younger workers or share client leads. "Don't expect to arrange this in one conversation—it will be a negotiation," says Dallas financial planner Richard Jackson.
Without a formal program, you'll have to have a conversation about part-time or consulting work. To make your case, spell out how you can offer value at a lower cost than a full-time employee, says Phil Dyer, a financial planner in Towson, Md.
Giving up group health insurance will be less of a financial blow if you are 65 and eligible for Medicare, or have coverage through your spouse. If not, you can shop for a policy on your state's insurance exchange. "Even if you have to pay health care premiums for a couple of years, you may find it worthwhile to reduce the stress of working full-time," says Dyer.
Do an Encore Elsewhere
This wind-down could also be a chance to do something completely different. Take advantage of online resources for older job seekers, including Encore.org, RetiredBrains.com, and Retirement-Jobs.com. You can find low-cost training at community colleges, which may offer programs specifically to fill jobs for local employers. Or, if you want nonprofit work, volunteer first. Says Chris Farrell, author of Unretirement, a new book about boomers working in retirement: "It's a great way to discover what the organization really needs and how your skills might fit in."
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