THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL.
Americans have long struggled with managing their work/life balance. We work longer and with less vacation than almost everyone else. The carrot dangling on the end of the stick is retirement. As the clock passed 6:00 p.m. at the office with no end in site, we quietly dreamed of cruising the beach in sandals and socks. Refueled, we put in a few more hours. Empty Nesters, however, are starting to wonder if a life of margaritas on the beach was an illusion instead of a dream. How do we live our best life if we remain married to work?
Economists measure how many Americans work through the “Labor Force Participation Rate” statistic. Generally speaking, the measurement expresses the number of Americans working as a percentage of total Americans. In contrast, the employment and unemployment rates illustrate the percentage of people who would like to work who are actually working.
We have this huge group of people referred to as the baby boom making their way through the economy. Most commonly, “baby boomers” refers to Americans born between 1946-1964. With the youngest boomers at age 56, retirement should be a reality for many and close enough to touch for most. Indeed, the percentage of Americans age 65 or older grew from 12.4% in 2000 to almost 18% of the population in 2020. As a this gaggle of Americans reached retirement age, economists expected the labor force participation rate to decline because of a wave of retirements.
TILL DEATH DO US PART…
And that is what has happened, almost. The participation rate dropped from 67% in 2000 to 63% right before the pandemic. Here is the shocking, horrifying twist. While the overall rate dropped, the participation rate for “seniors,” identified as 55 and older, grew significantly. Bluntly stated, there are less young people and more old people working.
One statistic drove home the point for me. The percentage of Americans still employed at over age 75 grew from 5% to 9% across the last two decades. Similar rises for workers in the 65-74 age range means the pool of workers willing to labor well past traditional retirement age is rapidly expanding. The question “Will You Still Love Me When I’m 64?” is irrelevant. Better to ask “How Much Can You Bill Me When You Are 74?”
THE WHY BEHIND WORK.
The fact that Empty Nester Americans now work longer on top of working harder results from a kaleidoscope of forces that shaped our lives differently than our grandparents’ lives. First, we live longer. Life expectancy in the United States increased by almost ten years from 1960 to 2020. While you might spend a smaller percentage of your life being completely retired than your grandparents did, the absolute number of “do only what you want” years should be about the same.
Second, we need the money. Leaving a company after decades of employment used to mean a gold watch and the start of a generous monthly pension check. Today, leaving a company after decades of employment often means a three o’clock cake cutting and not much more. The use of old school “defined benefit” pension plans declined a whopping 73% over the last three decades. While that was happening, we moved back the age at which workers could realize their full Social Security benefits. There is much less “income” in the phrase “living on a fixed income” these days.
Third, we can. As entrepreneurship and gig work become increasingly important in the new economy, the skills take center stage rather than the age of the person utilizing the skills. For instance, in 2017 over a quarter of new businesses came from people ages 55-64. For those still on the payroll, the large number of potential retirees offers some leverage. Employers have a hard time replacing a retiring work force from a smaller labor pool.
There is a dark side to the constantly changing business world for older employees. Not all skills are transferable, some become obsolete. There is less willingness to retrain a 58-year old employee with a perceived limited time horizon than their is a 30-year-old worker who has many years left to give. Trying to survive in the workforce with gray hair can be tougher than ever for those who lack current skills.
WHAT ONCE WERE VICES NOW ARE HABITS.
In summary, many of us can expect to work longer. Some of us will do it because we enjoy it and have new challenges; others will keep marching based on financial necessity; and a third group will struggle even more with underemployment. How do you plan to deal with those realities?
Like all relationships our “work marriage” demands attention. Start by being honest and intentional. While it is easy to get stuck in the rut where we just react to the alarm clock every morning, the better idea is to map out a strategy. What are you working for?
Take an afternoon and see if you can craft a good answer (or answers) to that question. Is it work goals; are you still chasing the perfect widget or spreadsheet? Maybe the personal relationships you derive from employment drive you. Perhaps you want more financial security, a beach house or a dream trip around the world. Defining your goals will help you make work decisions that will be productive for your life. Get out of the rut; work with a purpose.
HAPPY WIFE, HAPPY LIFE.
I try hard not to be sexist, but I am a guy and there is no clever rhyme for making sure the house husband is happy. So no offense intended. The point is, your work impacts more than you. If you have a spouse or significant other, their life goals count just as much as yours.
If your “work marriage” is going to mesh with your actual marriage, your partner must buy into the your plan and you must buy in to your partner’s plan. So, after being honest with yourself, try being honest with your partner. If you and your partner are each 55 years old, the actuarial tables say you have a quarter century left together.
What that quarter century looks like is worth an afternoon’s conversation. Try the stairstep method. As a starter ask your partner where they see your collective life five years from now. Then you describe what you envision 10 years out. Keep alternating in five-year segments until both of you are in rocking chairs. Try to keep it specific; it is amazing how closely we hold our dreams private from the one person in the world who can help you achieve them. Let the cat out of the bag; synergy works in relationships as well as business.
YOU HAVE TO HAVE A PAIR OF ACES IN THE HOLE.
Staying married to work feels much better if you want to stay married to work. That means avoiding situations were you work out of desperation. Two key concepts apply; they are your aces in the hole.
First, invest in yourself. As we age, stagnation creeps in; fight it with all your might. As we mentioned above, we increasingly live in a skills-based economy. That is great news for people at risk of age discrimination, because the check writers are more than ever paying for a product or a service rather than a person. On the other hand, a skills-based economy will darken the soul of anyone who lacks skills.
Try this trick. Update your resume even if you have no intention for looking for other employment. Take a hard look at the “skills” section and ask, if I was hiring for my company, what would I pay for those skills? Forget the years in the business, the colleges, the degrees or the awards. What you would pay for someone to do “what you do” is all that matters. If you do not like the answer, start fleshing out that skills field.
Second, keep some “folding money” in your pocket. In a gig economy subject to constant disruptions, the income-earning intervals might be spaced further apart. Your next opportunity could come in the form of a business where you sell your skills to the highest bidder rather than being wed to an employer. The transaction costs for self-employed work is steeper than when serving as an employee. Having a cash supply that calms the choppy waters allows you to keep swimming, rather than grabbing the first life raft you see.
MANY HAPPY ANNIVERSARIES.
The phrase “married to work” strikes me as negative while “married to M’Lissa” is my greatest blessing. Why the differing takes on “marriage?” The disconnect stems from the perception that the work marriage reduces the real marriage, reflecting life as a zero-sum game. It need not be so; we just need to pay enough attention to why we work so that it will add to, rather than subtract from, our lives.
J.K. Rowling wrote that “Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.” That holds true for careers. We can make the most out of empty nesting by not assuming our work life is on a fixed trajectory. Pay attention to your work marriage until it enriches you in whatever form makes you happiest. The rocking chair can wait.