Businessman in front of two arrowsMy grandfather worked at a paper supplier and printing company. He wore coveralls and brought home small scratch pads, which probably have something to do with my lifelong love of school supplies. He got up before 6 a.m. and went to work every day from the time my father was small until he retired when he was 60. He died shortly thereafter.

Work for my grandpa, a father of four, was not an option. Neither was retirement. He worked every day and retired at the age when most people retired. However, generations even just one removed from his are choosing instead to do it a different way. Or should I say different ways?

It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise day that how we work became a choice, but in many industries (certainly not all) it has happened. The debate over how we work (and for how long) came to the forefront this past week when Lloyd Blankfein, the 57-year-old CEO of Goldman Sachs (who was paid more than $16 million dollars last year) said on CBS the answer to the fiscal cliff was that Americans need to work longer:

You can look at history of these things, and Social Security wasn’t devised to be a system that supported you for a 30-year retirement after a 25-year career. … So there will be things that, you know, the retirement age has to be changed, maybe some of the benefits have to be affected, maybe some of the inflation adjustments have to be revised. But in general, entitlements have to be slowed down and contained.

While there are quite a few knowledge workers forgoing traditional retirement and working longer, this solution makes little sense for people with physically taxing jobs or repetitive careers like the one my grandpa enjoyed. Obviously, it is for these people, the working lower middle class, for whom social security was invented, not the CEOs of the world. Data from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, however, shows that delaying retirement doesn’t always help solve income shortfalls for those who are at risk.

In the past, most workers figured they’d be able to retire at the age of 65. But following 2008′s financial crisis, the idea of working a few more years to recoup lost savings became commonplace.

Among those in the highest income quartile, 90 percent have only a 50 percent chance of having enough to retire by 70.

Some claim the answer may be in taking mini-retirements throughout one’s career, ultimately staying in the working world the same amount of time, but using retirement up in “spurts” instead of simply at the end of one’s workforce life cycle. The truth is, the post 2008 economy has already made this sort of “woven work life” a reality for many, with millennials living at home, generation X getting graduate degrees at higher rates and Boomers taking late-in-life career changes.

While many of the changes or decisions may have been involuntary, their effects on the way we work has been significant. Work-flex environments are far more commonplace than they were a few years ago and companies are putting policies in place to begin to use the unique skills of specific generations. In fact, as portions of the economy have shifted demographically, we may be seeing some early retirements as well:

With the decline of traditional pension plans, there is nothing that locks workers into retiring at a particular age. Retirement ages vary considerably across individuals depending, e.g., on the strength of the stock market and of retirement plans.

Because of buyouts and other options, a great many older workers will already have left their long-term employer before age 65.

While “choosing to work” isn’t an option for everyone, it has become a new reality for many, including my father, who is currently enjoying his second career as a playwright and these early retirees who decided that work is best left to… someone else.



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