Stung by a recession that sapped investments and home values, but expressing widespread job satisfaction, older Americans appear to have accepted the reality of a retirement that comes later in life and no longer represents a complete exit from the workforce.
Some 82 percent of working Americans over 50 say it is at least somewhat likely they will work for pay in retirement, according to a poll released Monday by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The survey found 47 percent of working survey respondents now expect to retire later than they previously thought and, on average, plan to call it quits at about 66, or nearly three years later than their estimate when they were 40. Men, racial minorities, parents of minor children, those earning less than $50,000 a year and those without health insurance were more likely to put off their plans.
"Many people had experienced a big downward movement in their 401(k) plans, so they're trying to make up for that period of time when they lost money," said Olivia Mitchell, a retirement expert who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
About three-quarters of working respondents said they have given their retirement years some or a great deal of thought. When considering factors that are very or extremely important in their retirement decisions, 78 percent cited financial needs, 75 percent said health, 68 percent their ability to do their job and 67 percent said their need for employer benefits such as health insurance.
Graphic designer Tom Sadowski, 65, of Sterling, Va., had expected to retire this year, but the recession caused his business to fail and his savings to take a hit. With four teenage daughters, he knew he had to put retirement off.
"At this age, my dad had already been retired 10 years and moved to Florida," he said. "Times are different now for most people."
Sadowski now plans to retire in about five years, but even then, he expects to do some work for pay. He notes that some of his friends without children have begun to retire, but he tries not to dwell on his shifted plans.
"For a moment, maybe, I have a twinge of, 'I wish that were me,'" he said. "But you can't live that way."
The shift in retirement expectations coincides with a growing trend of later-life work. Labor force participation of seniors fell for a half-century after the advent of Social Security, but began picking up in the late 1990s. Older adults are now the fastest-growing segment of the American workforce; people 55 and up are forecast to make up one-fourth of the civilian labor force by 2020.
That growth has paralleled a rising interest in retirements that are far more active than the old stereotype of moving to Florida, never to work again. Among those who retired, 4 percent are looking for a job and 11 percent are already working again. Those still on the job showed far greater interest in continuing to work: Some 47 percent of employed survey respondents said they are very or extremely likely to do some work for pay in retirement, and 35 percent said they are somewhat likely.
"The definition of retirement has changed," said Brad Glickman, a certified financial planner with a large number of baby-boomer clients in Chevy Chase, Md. "Now the question we ask our clients is, 'What's your job after retirement?'"
One such retiree who returned to the workforce is Clara Marion, 69, of Covington, La., a teacher who retired in 2000 and went back to work a year later. She retired again in 2007 but soon returned to part-time work because she needed the money.
When she first retired, she had about $100,000 in savings, but she has used much of that up. Her pension isn't enough to pay her bills, and she isn't eligible for Social Security. So she's back in a second-grade classroom, four days a week.
"I'd love to be sleeping in," she said, "but I will probably never retire."
Though Marion's finances are primarily what keep her working, she says she enjoys her work, in line with other survey respondents reporting exceptional job satisfaction. Nine out of 10 workers in the study said they are very or somewhat satisfied with their job.
Increased lifespans and a renewed idea of when old age begins are also fueling more work among older adults. Six in 10 people said they feel younger than their age; only 6 percent said they feel older. Respondents said the average person is old at about 72. One in 5 said it depends on the person.
Even so, one-third of retired survey respondents said they did not stop working by choice. The figures were higher within certain demographic groups: racial minorities, those with less formal education or lower household incomes were more likely to feel they had no option but to retire. Eight percent say they were forced from a job because of their age. In interviews, survey respondents cited health as well as layoffs followed by unsuccessful job searches.
David Sandersfeld, 62, of Dayville, Ore., was laid off from his park ranger job two years ago. He had hoped to stay on the job until he was 70, but his search for a new job was fruitless. So almost a decade sooner than expected, he retired.
"It came sooner than I was hoping," he said. "The economy doesn't need me, so I guess I'll just retire."
Others, like Margaret Yarborough, 86, of Scranton, S.C., had their plans thwarted by health. She had hoped to keep working as a department store sales clerk forever, but a car accident and arthritis made it impossible, so she retired a few years ago.
"I sure would like to work," she said. "I enjoy being with people. I enjoy having the income."
The AP-NORC Center survey was conducted Aug. 8 through Sept. 10 by NORC at the University of Chicago, with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which makes grants to support original research and whose Working Longer program seeks to expand understanding of aging Americans' work patterns.
It involved landline and cellphone interviews in English and Spanish with 1,024 people aged 50 and older nationwide. Results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.
Though a roughly equal share of survey participants reported feeling secure about their retirement savings as feeling anxious, a significant minority gave signs of financial stress: One in 6 reported having less than $1,000 in retirement savings and 1 in 4 working respondents aren't saving for retirement outside of Social Security. Some 12 percent of unretired people reported borrowing from a 401(k) or other retirement plan in the past year. Though 29 percent reported at least $100,000 in savings, some find even that's not enough.
"All too often, people have a lump-sum illusion. They think, 'I have $100,000 in my 401k,' and they think, 'I'm rich,'" said Mitchell. "But it doesn't add up to much. It certainly is not going to keep them in champagne and truffles."
Dolores Gonzalez, 57, of Coalinga, Calif., expects no luxuries in retirement. She'll be happy if she can simply afford her $2,200 monthly mortgage payment. She used to think she would retire from teaching at 65; now she says she'll never stop working.
She had been strained by helping to support her parents. Now she has less than $200 in savings and she worries about sustaining herself in retirement when all she'll have is a Social Security check.
"A lot of people don't save because the cost of living is so high," she said. "Retirement is not going to be comfortable. It's going to be hard."