Growing Older and the Meaning of Work

The Maine Department of Labor has reported what many of us already knew – our state’s labor force is aging. Approximately half of private industry workers are at least 45 years old and within the next twenty years, approximately half of the current workforce for most sectors will be 65 or older. State government workers are even older than workers in the private sector. And, the majority of all educational services workers are over the age of 44 and more than a third are over the age of 54 (I’m one of them).

As you might guess, the labor force has grown older as the state’s population has aged, and participation rates for younger workers has declined. One of the additional reasons for this trend may surprise you – and that reason is because the popularity of early retirement is on the decline. Statistics reported by the U.S. Department of Labor confirm that people are working longer. After an extended period of time in which individuals were leaving their jobs earlier and earlier to presumably enjoy the fruit of their labor in blissful retirement there has been a change in our mentality. Why the shift in work and retirement patterns? Well, the recession of 2008 certainly had a good bit to do with it. Substantial losses in most everybody’s retirement nest eggs forced many to conduct a unexpected reality check, rethink their futures, and do what they had to do in terms of insuring they would have adequate resources to turn to in retirement, a period of time that could end up representing as much as a third of our lives.

Is it just the need to build back up our retirement nest eggs that keeps us on the job? Certainly, that remains a very important factor, but, it is not the only one influencing the decision. Work is meaningful for a number of reasons above and beyond serving as a source of compensation to cover the monthly bills. For many, work defines who we are and offers incentives and rewards that extend beyond the weekly paycheck and accompanying fringe benefits. The fact is, for some, it is also a major source of our identity; that is probably especially the case for the workaholics among us (come on now, you know who you are!). When asked who they are, the workaholics will frequently say they are what they do (I’m a carpenter, accountant, truck driver, teacher, doctor, etc.). They are far less likely to say they are mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, or partners. Least likely, I would bet, is the inclination to identify themselves as community members. There is value in taking the time to become more engaged in the lifeblood of our towns and communities. It is there that we might truly discover how to effectively repurpose what we have learned on the job and reengage with those around us in our next act if you will – our encore career.

For better or worse, there are others who have come to count on their jobs to give them much of the meaning they have in their daily lives. For them, work may have come to be a prime source of their identity and largely determines the role and function they see themselves performing in life. These are less likely to be people who have identified equally meaningful roles that satisfy them outside the work world. In the absence of a transition plan that enables you to replace work roles with functions you will be performing in your next act, retirement can be risky business.

This is not the case for everybody working later in life. For some, the fact that work provides them with structure, day in and day out, and regulates where they need to be, when they need to be there, and what they are expected to do is critical. In some instances, these are the very people who would feel rather aimless or even lost if not for their jobs. These are the individuals who may, in particular, be at a loss in terms of how they should spend their days in retirement unless they have carefully planned and prepared to involve themselves in a new set of activities that will serve to continue to make their lives meaningful later in life.

Still others count on the workplace to provide them with a sense of connectedness with the world around them. These people derive a great deal of satisfaction from work in large part because of the continuous opportunities it provides to establish and maintain meaningful social relationships and friendships. Men, traditionally, have been especially dependent on their jobs to provide them with a convenient pathway toward having a satisfying social life. After departing their jobs, they too, may experience “relationship” loss and even a sense of social isolation if they are not well prepared.

For all these reasons, men (and women) are working longer and, in a state like Maine, that is not a bad thing given the growing need that exists here for an experienced workforce. Still other older Mainers, in increasing numbers, may be thinking they want to return to the workforce for one or more of the reasons highlighted above (because retirement was not all it was cracked up to be). We can expect the trend toward working later and later in life to continue given the improved health status of older adults and the extended life span that awaits men and women in the years ahead.

And as for me personally, I do have a plan for retirement mapped out. At 64 years of age, I continue to enjoy what I’m doing, feel I make worthwhile contributions on the job, and certainly value a number of the benefits discussed above that come from being employed. But, I do see a time on the horizon when I will need to shift my focus and think about my encore career and what I will want that to look like. What does your next act look like?

Len Kaye

About Len Kaye

Dr. Lenard W. Kaye is Professor of Social Work at the University of Maine School of Social Work and Director of the UMaine Center on Aging.