Willie Nelson is 81; Warren Buffett is 84; Mary Higgins Clark is 86 and David Hockney is 77. All are still working and going strong. So are more and more Americans 75 and older. You might be one of them someday—and glad of it.
In a recent interview, British painter David Hockney—one of the world’s greatest living artists—captured the joy, meaning and youthfulness he continues to draw from his profession. “When I’m working, I feel like Picasso, I feel I’m 30,” he told Tim Lewis of The London Observer. “When I stop I know I’m not, but when I paint, I stand up for six hours a day and yeah, I feel I’m 30.”
'It's What I Enjoy Doing'
I imagine that sentiment rings true for Mark Paper, age 81. He’s President of Lewis Bolt & Nut Company in Wayzata, Minn., a firm owned by his family since 1927. Paper took the helm from his father in 1962 and remains deeply involved in the company’s expanding operations. He gets daily and weekly reports, stays in touch with its executives and flies out to visit the manufacturing plant in La Junta, Colo. several times a month.
“Why not stop working?” I asked Paper. “You have money. You’re 81 years old. Haven’t you heard of retirement?” His answer: “It’s what I enjoy doing.”
Plenty of other septuagenarians and octogenarians feel the same way.
Although people working at age 75 and over are a distinct minority—comprising less than 1% of the total labor force—roughly 11% of American men 75 and older are still at it and 5% of women that age are. By contrast, in 1992, only about 7% of 75+ men and 3% of 75+ women worked.
Indeed, after declining sharply in the early postwar decades, the average age of retirement in America has risen over the past two decades, to 64 for men and 62 for women, calculates Alicia Munnell, head of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
While the labor force participation rate for men 75 and up is currently about double that of the rate for women, the gap is expected to shrink. Boomer and Gen X women are well educated and more attached to their jobs than previous generations.
'I Can't Imagine Not Being Employed'
Marilyn Tully, 75, loves working, too. She has been self-employed her entire working life in businesses mostly revolving around the home and interior design. “I can’t imagine not being employed,” she says. “Especially if you still have the energy, which I do and, like me, you have the creative urge.”
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been rough patches. In 2007, she and her husband had to shutter their Naples, Fla. furniture business, a casualty of the housing market implosion, and her interior design company suffered. These days, her design business is picking up, she represents a successful jewelry designer and consults on inventory management for high-end designers. (Her husband handles the administrative and IT sides of her firms.) When they aren’t working, they sail Florida’s gulf coast for two weeks at a time on the trimaran Tully’s husband built. “It’s a good life,” she says.
'It Keeps Me Young'
Newspaper publisher Jerry Bellune of Lexington, S.C., 77, works at a pace that would leave many younger workers gasping. He says running the Lexington County Chronicle & Dispatch News with his wife, MacLeod, offers him “enjoyment, exhilaration, a strong sense of mission and purpose.” On top of that, says Bellune, “it keeps me young, working with younger people and helping them grow personally and professionally.”
And he has no plans to stop. “I'd like to work as long as I'm able and can still make a contribution,” Bellune told me.
Here’s a typical workweek for him: Mondays and Tuesdays, he’s usually at the office, writing, proofing pages and talking with the staff about coverage, and the rest of the week he’s mostly writing and helping with community endeavors. Weekends are busy, too, writing weekly and monthly articles for a business magazine and two trade magazines. (He’s also a consultant and manages a family investment fund. Tired yet?)
The Bellunes do take breaks, traveling abroad several weeks a year and spending time at their vacation home. “We have an excellent staff that permits us that leisure,” he says.
'It Keeps Me Off the Streets'
Funeral assistant Jerry Beddow, 75, loves working, too. A year after retiring as a high school principal in 1994, Beddow began his current job at Patton-Schad Funeral and Cremation Services in Sauk Centre, Minn. He works about three to four hours a day, helping position caskets at the funeral home, carrying flowers, talking to grieving families and driving the hearse. “It keeps me off the streets,” he laughs.
After researching my new book, Unretirement, I’ve come to believe that the ranks of people 75+ earning a paycheck will expand in coming decades, especially among better educated employees and businesss owners. It isn’t inconceivable that the average retirement age when the youngest boomers reach their 70s in the early 2030s could approach 70.
“Public opinion in the aggregate may decree that the average person becomes old at age 68, but you won’t get too far trying to convince people that age that the threshold applies to them,” notes Pew Research in its report, Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality. “Even among those who are 75 and older, just 35% say they feel old.”
The ones who are able to keep working well into their 70s, I think, will find themselves leading richer lives, both financially and psychically.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media’s Marketplace and author of the new book Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and The Good Life. He writes about Unretirement twice a month, focusing on the personal finance and entrepreneurial start-up implications and the lessons people learn as they search for meaning and income. Send your queries to him at email@example.com. His twitter address is @cfarrellecon.
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