Unretirement: can it be a positive story for all?

“When I was sitting around at home I would just get grumpy. I’ve also lost five stone since working here. This is like a vitality camp for me.” Retired British Transport Police inspector Brendan McCambridge, 56, interviewed in The Telegraph, describes how his new role at Waitrose has improved his life. He is one of the one in four retired British people who return to paid work, a phenomenon called “unretirement”. New research, led by Dr Loretta G. Platts from Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute, explores who ends up unretiring. In this blog post, she considers the implications for individuals, business and policy of retired older people returning to paid work.

Retirement can be an abrupt and one-way change marking the end of paid work and the start of a time of leisure. But people’s lives often don’t look like this. People may gradually retire over a period of time, or even unretire, returning to paid work after retiring. We found that around one in four retirees in the UK returns to paid work, mostly within five years of retiring.

Our information came from the longitudinal Understanding Society data and its predecessor the British Household Panel Survey. We followed more than 2000 50–69-year-olds through the 1990s and 2000s. Participants were defined as unretiring if they reported retiring and later returned to paid employment, or began full-time work following a period of semi-retirement.

While all sorts of people unretire, men are more likely to unretire than women, as are people in good health and those with post-16 qualifications. Unretirees are also more likely to have a partner in paid work. After ten years, a retiree’s chances of taking up paid work are low.

What motivates unretirement?

Unretirement was a positive experience for Brendan McCambridge. Having a job helps to stay mentally and physically active, provides a meaningful activity, and unretirees often appreciate the social side of paid work. Some may appreciate the extra money earned which supplements a pension and provides funds for little extras. For others, earning money is an important part of the decision to unretire.

Our findings suggest that financial factors play a role in the decision to return to paid work. Retirees paying off a mortgage are more likely to unretire than those who already own their home outright. Unretirees may wish to prepare financially for retirement or to supplement a pension. With a basic state pension of £122.30 per week for people who retired before 6th April 2016, some people may have found a new job because they could not afford to retire.

Former Pensions Minister Steve Webb, now director of policy at Royal London, contends that some retirees may have little other option than to get a job. In an interview for People Management, Webb noted that although many of those heading back to work after retirement do so because they “miss the stimulation and social contact”, there is a “real danger” that a whole generation of people will be unable to retire in the first place because they have not managed to save a big enough pension pot.

He says: “If employers do not address this issue they could find themselves with an unhappy older workforce that does not want to work but cannot afford to stop.”

Why retire and then unretire?

Some people may unretire as a result of finding out that they like being retired a lot less than they thought they would. Researchers call this a “retirement shock”, in which recent retirees, just like Brendan McCambridge, discover that they do not like their new lifestyle.

Others may have known all along that they wanted to remain in paid work, but were unable to. More than one million people over 50 are out of work for reasons beyond their control and would like to be in paid work if the appropriate opportunities were available. Some people may be forced out of work directly or indirectly as a result of age-based stereotypes, in particular through not being offered training programmes to learn new skills, or from their updated skills being undervalued.

In their second Missing Million report, Business in the Community has argued that far too many older people are being denied the chance to enjoy meaningful employment in later life and calls for stronger age discrimination legislation to tackle this.

Employers of older people also often deny them the flexibility they require to stay in paid work. Workers aged between 50 and 69 years are more likely than other age groups to want to work fewer hours than they currently do, even if this were for less pay. Around 8 per cent of workers in their 50s are working more than 45 hours per week while also being in ill health. Such older workers, locked into working long hours, may retire from jobs because they do not offer sufficient flexibility of working times.

Retirees may then take a more suitable job if it comes up, or negotiate more suitable working times later on if their former employer asks them to come back. Dr Jill Miller, diversity and inclusion adviser at the Chartered Institute for Professional Development believes that simple adjustments to working times or job roles could be the key to employers attracting and retaining a “significant talent pool” of older workers who can contribute to the success of the organisation.

Does everybody get to unretire if they want to?

While people in financial straits may be wanting to unretire, we found they did not necessarily manage to. People who were struggling to make ends meet were not more likely to unretire than people in a more comfortable financial situation.

Similarly, those who had lower earnings before retirement were not more likely to unretire. The reason is probably that it is harder for people in a precarious financial situation to find a suitable or good quality job.

These findings are worrying in terms of the broader picture of inequalities in later life. If those retirees who most need to supplement their incomes in later life are not able to find suitable paid work, unretirement may be part of processes that increase inequalities in income between older people.

The findings are also worrying in the context of skills shortages currently faced by British industry, which are predicted to be exacerbated over the coming years. By 2022, the skills gap is expected to reach 7.5 million vacancies. Government and business should not forget about the experience and skills of recently retired workers who are often ready and keen to be re-engaged in the workforce. These workers may need more support and legislation to protect and promote their rights to work more flexibly to take into account their preferences and also the fact that they may be caring for grandchildren and other family members.

Specifically, the government could improve flexible working legislation by providing employees with the right to request flexible working from the start of the job application process, rather than waiting 26 weeks from the beginning of employment. Since older employees are less likely to be offered training, and are less likely to take it up, employers could monitor access to training and development by age as well as proactively offering training to employees and being open to additional training requests.

Where older people manage to find new jobs, it is a result of their own efforts and networks, and not because they accessed effective support. Older people reported in focus groups that Job Centres in particular provided poor guidance and assistance. Government could consider how to develop age-appropriate support services and guidance in Job Centres. Both government and employers could offer mid-life career reviews.

In the long term, we need to work towards a society in which unretirement becomes a positive story for all. Business and wider society stand to benefit from the ambition, experience and skills older people bring to the labour market. For financial and other reasons, many older people want to be in paid work. Currently, they are all too often left out.

Returns to work after retirement: a prospective study of unretirement in the United Kingdom is research by Loretta Platts, Laurie Corna, Diana Worts and Peggy McDonough and is published in Ageing and Society.

Photo credit: Scott Lewis

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