The Reasons More People Are Working in Their 80s | Mint

The Reasons More People Are Working in Their 80s

From left: Tech executive Marjorie Zingle and Harvard Business School researcher Stephen Greyser say their jobs still excite them. Primatologist Jane Goodall is a model for others who want to keep working in their 80s.
From left: Tech executive Marjorie Zingle and Harvard Business School researcher Stephen Greyser say their jobs still excite them. Primatologist Jane Goodall is a model for others who want to keep working in their 80s.

Summary

  • They joke that retirement is boring, but some acknowledge a deeper fear of becoming irrelevant if they quit

The first thing to know about people who shun retirement to work past age 80 is that they are probably busier, and possibly cooler, than you.

One said an interview would have to wait because he was traveling to France for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Another said he would be free after hitting a research deadline and organizing his Harvard Business School class’s 65th reunion. A third, available on shorter notice, emailed a physical description before meeting: “In the spirit of YOLO, I have blue hair and tattoos."

Growing numbers of 80-somethings are deciding that if days are finite, they are better spent on the job than in retirement.

Harrison Ford, 80, is releasing his latest “Indiana Jones" movie, Jane Goodall, 89, is still protecting chimps, Smokey Robinson, 83, is still touring, and 80-year-old Joe Biden is still governing (and seeking re-election), so why not keep going too?

Biden’s decision to seek a second term in the White House, which would keep him in office until age 86, has renewed a conversation about how effectively people can work in their ninth decade.

Roughly 650,000 Americans over 80 were working last year, according to the Census Bureau, about 18% more than a decade earlier. Some people have been pressed back into duty by inflation and stock-market volatility, while the fading pandemic made others who took a break feel more comfortable clocking in again. Many cite a simpler reason to keep working—they just want to.

Nearly half log full-time hours. Though some run a cash register or pump gas to stave off boredom, 80-somethings are more common in professional, managerial and financial roles than in service jobs, federal data show.

These workers joke about getting bored on the golf course or being pushed out of the house by a spouse who won’t tolerate idleness. Beneath the wisecracks is a sense of purpose that refuses to fade. They just can’t quit their careers.

Daniel Jaffe, founding partner of Jaffe Family Law Group in Los Angeles, says he loves traveling to conferences, schmoozing in bars and collecting accolades and press clippings, many of which he displays in his office. If he stopped practicing full time, he worries that the invitations and attention would vanish fast.

“It really is out of sight, out of mind," the 85-year-old says of his field.

Jaffe’s specialty is divorces of the rich and famous. He still relishes the challenge of the job: preventing exes from hating each other, or being hated by their children. He has few pastimes, none of which replace the rush of a big case. Plus many of his contemporaries with whom he might hang out after hanging it up are dead.

Basically, he says he missed his window to retire, so he keeps working.

More to come

Workers over 80 are a sliver of the overall U.S. labor force and a rarity in the highest echelons of business.

In the S&P 500, 1.6% of board members are at least 80, up from 1.3% a decade ago, according to Equilar, which tracks corporate leadership trends. Two chief executives in the index are older than 80, Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, 92, and Teledyne Technologies’ Robert Mehrabian, 81, who returned as CEO in 2021 when a younger executive retired.

Signs point toward growing ranks, however. Although many companies set mandatory retirement ages for directors, it is common to grant waivers to those with vital institutional knowledge, an Equilar spokesman noted.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that workforce participation among people 75 and older will climb to 11.7% by 2030 from 8.9% in 2020. The participation rate for every other age group is expected to decline.

In raw numbers, there will be almost twice as many 75-plus workers than there were in 2020, according to the forecast. A key growth driver, BLS notes, is that everyone in the baby boomer generation will be at least 65 in 2030.

“That’s significant," Society for Human Resource Management CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr. says. The demographic shift is prompting neuroscientists, employment consultants and others to rethink how older workers can stay in the workforce with meaningful jobs.

Data released last week by the Census Bureau shows that America’s population is older than ever. As the birthrate falls and hundred-year lifespans become more common, forcing people to earn income for longer, the solution to companies’ labor shortages could be silver and gray, Taylor adds.

Andree Carlson, 82, dyes her grays blue and sets her tattooed arms to the task of kneading dough at 6 a.m., five days a week, in a supermarket bakery in Georgia. She was shopping in the store a year and a half ago, wearing a shirt with the logo of a different bakery where she worked at the time, when a manager approached and asked if she was interested in changing jobs.

Carlson could hardly believe she was being recruited—“You know I’m old, right?" she recalls saying—but she’s come to realize that a grandma who makes killer biscuits and takes the early shift without complaint is a hot commodity.

She doesn’t need the money, she says. More than a paycheck, she craves the satisfaction of being relied on.

“I work with other older people like me, and I think most of them are working for the same reasons I do," she says. “We like having somewhere to go, something that needs to be done, and everybody likes to feel needed."

Insider status

Picture a serial technology entrepreneur whose latest venture is a cybersecurity startup spun out of a data-storage firm. No matter how good your mind might be at suppressing stereotypes, it probably didn’t conjure an image of 87-year-old Marjorie Zingle.

“I love to go into a meeting and surprise everybody," says the CEO of Calgary, Alberta-based DataHive and its new spinoff, DataHiveSecure.

That happens less frequently these days, not because 80-plus, female tech executives are more common but because she has become well known in cloud computing. The field still fascinates her and, as a widow, she says she is uninterested in retiring without a companion.

Really, though, she keeps working and creating companies to show those who have doubted her through the decades that they are wrong.

“I’ve proved it over and over, and I can’t stop," she says.

At a certain point, longevity becomes so embedded in a person’s identity that it is hard to imagine making a clean break.

Stephen Greyser, still writing Harvard Business School case studies at 88, has amassed plenty of real awards. None is more precious than the unofficial “Cal Ripken of HBS" cup that students presented to him several years ago, in reference to the Hall of Fame baseball player who holds the record for consecutive games played.

Greyser, a professor emeritus who has written more than 300 case studies, figures he won’t break the record, which stands at more than 500. That’s not his motivation. His research involves forming relationships with powerful people, learning the inner workings of complex organizations and sometimes being privy to information he can’t publish.

He isn’t ready to let go of the thrill.

“It’s the collegiality, the collaboration and the pleasure of being on the inside," he says.

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